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Originally published November 1, 2007 at 12:00 AM | Page modified November 1, 2007 at 2:01 AM

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Capital Watch

Panel balks at blanket telecom immunity

The Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat and Republican expressed reluctance Wednesday to granting blanket immunity to telecommunications...

WASHINGTON — The Senate Judiciary Committee's top Democrat and Republican expressed reluctance Wednesday to granting blanket immunity to telecommunications carriers sued for assisting the government's warrantless-surveillance program.

Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and the ranking Republican, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., had said that before even considering such a proposal, they would need to see the legal documents underpinning the program, which began after the Sept. 11 attacks and were put under court oversight in January.

On Tuesday, the committee was given access to some of the documents. But Leahy said Wednesday that he had a "grave concern" about blanket immunity. The activities seem to be "in violation of the privacy rights of Americans" and of federal domestic-surveillance law, he said.

The immunity provision sought by the White House would wipe out about 40 lawsuits that accuse AT&T, Verizon Communications and Sprint Nextel of invading Americans' privacy and constitutional rights by assisting the government in domestic surveillance without a warrant.

Specter agreed that the "courts ought not to be closed" to such lawsuits.

More Dems oppose AG nominee

Democratic support for attorney-general nominee Michael Mukasey dwindled further Wednesday over his refusal to comment on the legality of a harsh interrogation technique, setting the stage for an unexpectedly close vote next week by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., said they will join Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., in voting against Mukasey on the Judiciary panel, after the nominee said in a four-page letter to Senate Democrats that he does not know whether a type of simulated drowning called waterboarding constitutes illegal torture under U.S. law.

The committee vote on Mukasey's nomination is scheduled for Tuesday.

Agriculture nominee named

President Bush on Wednesday nominated Edward Schafer, who served two terms as governor of North Dakota, to head the Department of Agriculture.

Schafer's confirmation would bring new leadership to the department in the middle of congressional negotiations over a new five-year farm bill. He would replace Mike Johanns, who resigned last month to launch a bid for a Nebraska Senate seat.

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Bush called Schafer, 61, a natural candidate for the post, given his farm roots and experience as an entrepreneur and governor of a state where nearly a quarter of the workers hold agriculture-related jobs.

Also

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., 80, was hospitalized for the third time in a month Wednesday for what his office called a "low-grade infection" related to his treatment for a minor heart problem.

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