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KAI RYSSDAL: In the Senate today, lawmakers continued their debate of the rules governing electronic surveillance. The bill at hand would allow warrantless wiretaps of calls or e-mails coming from someone overseas to someone here in the United States. The sticking point is whether telecommunications companies should be immune from lawsuits over their cooperation with the government in those searches -- immune going back as far as September 11th, 2001. Our Washington bureau chief John Dimsdale reports.

JOHN DIMSDALE: President Bush says he'll veto any bill that doesn't provide liability immunity for telecom companies. Last month the House passed a bill without immunity. But Senate Democrats have been unable to come up with the 60 votes to approve the House version.

The president's supporters in the Senate, like Missouri Republican Christopher Bond, say the government depends on phone company records to track down terrorists.

CHRISTOPHER BOND: Companies in the future may be less willing to assist the government if they face the threat of private lawsuits each time they are alleged to have provided assistance.

But Massachusetts Democrat Edward Kennedy said he doesn't buy the administration's argument that lawsuits would bankrupt the telecom companies.

EDWARD KENNEDY: In other words, the administration is telling us that these companies may have engaged in lawbreaking on a scale so massive that they could not afford the penalty if they are brought to justice. But massive lawbreaking is an argument against immunity, not for it.

California Democrat Diane Feinstein has introduced a compromise to require a court review of the immunity question. She thinks the companies would have a good argument.

DIANE FEINSTEIN: There is a long-standing common law provision that allows citizens to rely on the assumption that the government acted legally when it asks a private citizen or company to assist it for the common good.

Telephone companies that allegedly turned over their records to the government are facing some 40 lawsuits from groups and individuals who say their privacy was violated.

In Washington, I'm John Dimsdale for Marketplace.