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House challenges Bush on surveillance

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  • NEW: House approves Democratic-sponsored revisions to surveillance act
  • Will allow lawsuits against phone companies, but with conditions
  • Bill now goes to the Senate, which has already approved immunity provision
  • House chamber met in a secret session Thursday -- first time since 1983
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The House of Representatives voted Friday to back the Democratic-sponsored revisions to federal surveillance laws.

The vote was 213-197 in favor of a revision of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act bill that was supported by the Democratic leadership.

One member voted present.

The vote came after a secret session Thursday night in the House. It was the first time the House has met in secret since 1983.

The Democratic plan would allow telecommunications companies to be sued for their role in the administration's much-disputed warrantless surveillance program.

The bill now goes to the Senate, but both the Senate and President Bush have made it clear that they will not support the bill without an immunity provision.

Bush has spent weeks pressuring the House to grant retroactive legal immunity to the phone companies that took part in the program, initiated after the September 11 attacks.

Bush argues that legal protection is needed for companies to continue cooperating with the government and has vowed to veto the House Democratic proposal, which would allow the lawsuits to move forward in federal courts.

The Senate has voted to protect the phone companies from lawsuits filed by privacy advocates, who argue that the surveillance program was illegal.

The Democratic plan, however, will allow the companies to argue their cases and present classified evidence to a judge during a closed proceeding without the plaintiffs present.

On Friday, GOP members spoke out against the plan.

Democrats "know the risks they are taking on behalf of the American people and they don't care ... and that's what bothers me most," Republican Rep. Heather Wilson of New Mexico said.

Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida blasted Democrats for adjourning Congress for two weeks "without having given every protection available to the American people."

A joint statement from the Department of Justice and the office of the director of national intelligence said that based on initial reports, "We are concerned that the proposal would not provide the intelligence community the critical tools needed to protect the country."

The statement also restates the administration's position that immunity protection is necessary so the program can continue.

"Exposing the private sector to continued litigation for assisting in efforts to defend the country understandably makes the private sector much more reluctant to cooperate. Without their cooperation, our efforts to protect the country cannot succeed," it said.

Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence, warned Wednesday that the House proposal "would, in essence, shut us down" and sent House Speaker Nancy Pelosi a letter outlining his objections to the legislation.

House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers took a different angle.

"We are not going to cave into a retroactive immunity situation," the Michigan Democrat said. "There's no law school example in our memory that gives retroactive immunity for something you don't know what you are giving it for. It just doesn't work in the real world or on the Hill either."

Bush called the plan "a partisan bill that would undermine America's security," and White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the Democratic bill "would hamstring the intelligence community." Video Watch Bush threaten to veto »

But Pelosi, D-California, said: "The president is wrong, and he knows it." Pelosi said Republicans also called for a closed session of the Senate during its debate on the bill, a move she characterized as a delaying tactic.

"But again, if there is a merit to having a closed session that is worth pushing back consideration of the bill, let's hear what their purpose is," she said.

Secret sessions were common in the early 1800s, but the House has held only three since 1830, not counting Thursday's, according to the Congressional Research Service. The third was in 1983, to discuss U.S. support for efforts to overthrow the government of Nicaragua.

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Rep. David Obey, a veteran Wisconsin Democrat, said he took part in that session and the two previous ones, in 1979 and 1980.

"And I think the great utility of having another one, given the mumbo-jumbo I heard in the last three, is to demonstrate the almost total uselessness of secret sessions," he said. E-mail to a friend E-mail to a friend

CNN's Deirdre Walsh contributed to this report.

All About George W. BushU.S. House of RepresentativesU.S. Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court

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