WASHINGTON The chairman of the House Intelligence Committee hinted Sunday that a bitter battle over an expired eavesdropping law may be moving toward a conclusion that gives phone companies the retroactive legal protections long sought by President Bush.
The chairman, Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, said in an interview on CNN that the committee had been talking to the companies "because if we're going to give them blanket immunity, we want to know and understand what it is we're giving immunity for."
Reyes did not specify what provisions a House bill might contain. But his use of the words "blanket immunity" suggested that he might be moving toward a Senate bill, backed by Bush, that would protect phone companies that assisted in a federal program of wiretapping without warrants after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"I have an open mind about that," Reyes said.
"We're very close," he added. "Probably within the next week, we'll be able to move hopefully to bring it to a vote."
The eavesdropping law, which expired Feb. 16, made it easier for the government to initiate wiretaps without court approval. Bush has said its expiration creates a national security risk, while Democrats say the government can continue current wiretaps and start new ones through other legal means.
The main point of the dispute over renewing the legislation concerns whether to immunize phone companies from at least 40 lawsuits that allege their actions after Sept. 11 violated privacy laws.
"They're getting sued for billions of dollars, and it's not fair," Bush said on Feb. 25. "And it will create doubt amongst private-sector folks who need to help protect us."
Bush has also said that allowing the lawsuits to proceed could disclose government secrets and damage national security.
The Senate passed a bill on Feb. 11 that protected phone companies from the lawsuits. Democratic leaders in the House offered to temporarily extend the other provisions of the eavesdropping law, the Protect America Act, while the immunity issues were debated. But congressional Republicans, backed by the White House, rejected the offer, and the law expired.
Over the last two weeks, Democratic aides in the House and Senate have discussed potential compromises. One would allow the lawsuits to proceed, but have the federal government replace the phone companies as the defendant. Another would let a special court review the companies' actions outside public view.
In his CNN comments, which were taped Friday, Reyes made no reference to such compromise measures. In describing his "open mind," he said he had been talking to representatives of the phone companies and reviewing administration documents about the companies' actions. Efforts to reach Reyes on Sunday so he could expand on his remarks were unsuccessful.
Speaking on the same show, "Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer," Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri, the No. 2 House Republican, said he was "not quite that optimistic yet" that an agreement would soon be reached.
A White House spokesman, Gordon D. Johndroe, declined to say whether Reyes' comments signaled a coming agreement. "We certainly hope the House Democratic leaders will bring the measure to the floor as soon as possible," he said.