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The Republican leadership in the Senate made their move early Thursday evening, successfully blocking any votes on amendments to the intelligence bill and forcing the Senate to vote only on the Administration-approved bill worked out by the Senate Intelligence committee. That vote will come on Monday at 4:30 just hours before the President delivers the State of the Union address from the Senate floor.
The Intel committee bill expands the government's wiretapping authority and gives immunity to the telecoms that helped the government secretly spy on Americans without getting the warrants required by law.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) railed and whined about the tactic and said he would vote against 'cloture' -- which would have limited the debate time and the possible amendments.
His comments prompted a postponement of the cloture vote until Monday at 4:30. If the Republicans win that vote, the Senate will have until 6 pm Tuesday to debate the bill as it currently stands and then vote on it.
In the meantime, the Senate will be open for business, but no amendments to the spying legislation will be voted on or introduced.
The move also places the vote just four and a half hours before President Bush delivers the State of the Union address on Monday night at 9 p.m., when he is expected to forcefully argue for Congress to give him the spying powers.
Reid castigated the Republicans for not allowing debate and discussion on amendments that would have required reports on the goverment's secret wiretapping program, re-affirmed that spying could only happen by following wiretap law, and strengthened bans on the government finding loopholes to target Americans for surveillance without getting warrants first.
"We offered an extension of the current law for a month, several months, a year, 18 months," Reid said. "But the Republican leadership don't want to extend the program."
"It is really not fair we be asked to accept hthis without being able to vote on a single amendment," Reid complained.
The current law, known as the Protect America Act, expires on February 1. The measure gives the intelligence community wide powers to unilaterally order domestic communication companies to help the government spy, a power the Administration says it needs to snoop on foreign terrorists.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) countered that the Intelligence bill was the product of months of bipartisan work -- essentially a known quantity that could be ruined by amendments.
"We do know the pres will sign the Rockefeller-Bond proposal before us," McConnell said, referring to the Senate Intelligence Committee's top Democrat and Republican respectively.
Dick Durbin followed to second Reid's disappointment and to clarify that no amendments would be voted on in the meantime.
"They want the president's version of the bill -- take it or leave it," Durbin railed of the Republican leadership. "They would run the risk of shutting down the program."