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House likely to let surveillance law lapse

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  • NEW: Thirty-four House Democrats help defeat extension of law
  • Bush urged House to pass same version of act that Senate approved Tuesday
  • Senate version includes retroactive immunity for telecoms if they helped eavesdrop
  • House version does not include immunity, requires more oversight of surveillance
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- A temporary surveillance law is likely to expire Saturday after House Democrats failed to draw enough votes Wednesday to pass a 21-day extension of the law.

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President Bush said he will not accept another temporary extension of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

The extra days would have given legislators time to reconcile their differences with a bill the Senate passed.

Thirty-four House Democrats, mostly liberals who oppose any extension of the program, joined Republicans to defeat the extension.

The debate over immunity for telecommunication companies has been a large part of Congress' efforts to permanently update the 30-year-old Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act so that intelligence agencies don't always have to obtain a court warrant to monitor foreign-to-foreign communications involving suspected terrorists, even if they come through telecommunication switches in the United States.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said he was "disappointed" by the 199-229 vote, and added that he didn't expect Democrats to try again before they leave at the end of the week for a weeklong recess.

Democrats plan to "use the next 21 days for the same purposes, that is, to try to see if we can reach agreement between the House and the Senate on a bill that can enjoy broad support," the Maryland Democrat said.

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The Senate version of the bill -- approved Tuesday 68-29 -- includes a provision that President Bush supports that makes telecommunication companies immune from lawsuits for having helped the government, without a warrant, conduct electronic eavesdropping on suspected terrorists. The House version doesn't have such a provision.

Congress passed the temporary law last summer. It originally expired February 1, but Congress extended it two weeks to give itself more time to agree on a permanent fix. Under the current extension, the measure expires at midnight Saturday.

The failure of the most recent attempt at an extension signaled a victory of sorts for Bush, who earlier in the day said he would not sign any more extensions of the temporary bill and urged the House to pass the Senate version.

"If Republicans and Democrats in the Senate can come together on a good piece of legislation, there's no reason why Republicans and Democrats in the House cannot pass the Senate bill immediately," he said in brief remarks from the Oval Office. He was accompanied by Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell. Video Watch Bush urge the House to pass the bill »

Before the House vote, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky told reporters, "The Senate is not going to be receptive to another extension. This is not a new issue. It's been around for quite a while."

He was joined by House Minority Leader John Boehner, who said the measure "needs to be passed by the House this week, or we're putting the American people at risk."

But Hoyer dismissed what he called the "fear-mongering" of Republicans arguing that America would be at risk if Congress is unable to pass a bill before the temporary measure expires. He said the House would not accept "a take-it-or-leave-it scenario" just to pass the Senate measure.

"They have all the authority they need," Hoyer said of the administration.

House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, argued that if the Protect America Act is not extended, "it doesn't mean that we're somehow vulnerable. The old FISA law works, and it works very effectively."

Earlier, Reyes said, "I plan to advocate strongly for the House bill, which contains important protections for the constitutional rights of Americans."

Bush said the cooperation of telecommunication companies is vital to discovering enemy plans.

"If these companies are subjected to lawsuits that could cost them billions of dollars, they won't participate. They won't help us. They won't help protect America," he said. "Liability protection is critical to securing the private sector's cooperation with our intelligence efforts."

Director of National Intelligence McConnell and Attorney General Michael Mukasey have said they would recommend a presidential veto if the retroactive immunity provision is not part of the final legislation, and the White House has indicated a veto would be likely.

But the chairman of the House Judiciary Committee released a letter Tuesday that he sent to the White House indicating such immunity is not justified. In his letter, Rep. John Conyers, D-Michigan, wrote that a file of secret documents recently provided by the White House "leads me to conclude that there is no basis for the broad telecommunications company amnesty provisions advocated by the administration."

Conyers also complained that the administration has not provided all of the requested documents and called on the White House to do so promptly.

The telecommunication firms are facing more than 40 lawsuits alleging the privacy of their customers was violated when their records were allegedly turned over to the government.

AT&T, Verizon and other companies are believed to have provided information to aid the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program, authorized by the president after the 9/11 attacks, in which communications involving suspected al Qaeda members and people in the United States were monitored.

Before the presidential directive authorizing that program, the NSA had to get a surveillance court warrant to eavesdrop on conversations that had a connection within the United States.

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The telecom companies have refused to comment on their activities related to the government.

Civil rights advocates, including Democracy for America and the American Civil Liberties Union, say the Senate bill is a "get out of jail free card" for what they call "illegal spying on Americans." E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN producers Kevin Bohn, Deirdre Walsh and Pam Benson contributed to this report.

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