Over the past several days the "Protect America Act" was the center of a contentious Senate debate. If you've been parsing through news sources you may have actually heard of this development (because most of the major news networks have essentially ignored the story; they're too worried about inaccurate polling to care about little things like The Constitution).
Here's an older story I wrote in 2007 and here's someone much smarter than myself explaining the outcome of the last several days. The following is a little overview.
As I mentioned before, attempts to update the purview of the FISA courts so that they can oversee new technological advances (e-mail, etc.) has been the subject of much back and forth over the past several months. Expanding the ability to monitor these new lines of communication with a court order is pretty uncontroversial in the Senate. Both Democrats and Republicans agree to updating the law to achieve this affect. The previous FISA bill that achieved monitoring of new technologies is about to expire in February which leaves the Senate with two options: 1) comprise on a bill now or 2) extend the previous FISA bill for another thirty days.
However, the Republicans have included in the bill telecom amnesty for those telephone companies who allowed Bush to spy on American citizens without a warrant. I have gone into the importance of denying phone companies telecom amnesty in my previous post on the subject.
For the past several days the Republicans have claimed that if the FISA bill is not updated then Al Qaeda will invade your home and sleep with your wife. Paradoxically, Bush has claimed that he will veto the FISA bill if it does not have telecom amnesty and will also veto a thirty day extension of the previous bill. What? So according to his own rhetoric, he would rather have Al Qaeda sleep with the wives of American citizens than wait another month for a compromise or let the courts decide (rather than the legislature) whether the telephone companies broke the law. Is that the kind of talk you would hear from someone who wants to protect America at all costs?
Thankfully, the Democrats decided to grow a vertebra and actually stood up to Bush. To prevent any amendments to the bill that would have potentially stripped the bill of telecom amnesty, the Republicans enacted a cloture vote. Cloture ends all debate and any potential amendments. In order to achieve cloture the Republicans would have had to get sixty votes. They lost by twelve votes. Even one of their own, Senator Arlen Specter, voted against cloture. In a tit-for-tat move the Republicans then prevented the Democrats from getting cloture on the thirty day extension.
Here is Chris Dodd arguing against cloture on the Senate floor:
So, where does this leave us? As far as I can tell, back at the beginning. The bill will expire in early February meaning that the new technology will be off limits to eavesdropping but regular phone communication will be fair game for FISA just like it has been since the FISA courts were created way back before September 11th 2001. Expect Republicans to take advantage of the confusing nature of this bill by claiming that we can no longer listen in on Al Qaeda. We can. We could before September 11th and we will be able to well into the future.
There's some real momentum against telecom amnesty. When the bill was introduced in 2007 Chris Dodd lead a successful campaign against it. Only about a dozen Democrats stood up with him. Now the vast majority of Democrats are at least ready to hear him out. In another month or so who knows, maybe we'll actually beat telecom amnesty. I'll close with another video of Dodd way back in 2007 when he placed a hold on the FISA bill that contained telecom amnesty. It's a great summation of how far gone the ideals of America have become over the last seven years.