WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final approval Wednesday to a major expansion of the government's surveillance powers, handing President Bush one more victory in hard-fought clashes with Democrats over national security issues.
The measure, approved by a vote of 69-28, marks the biggest restructuring of federal surveillance law in 30 years. It includes a divisive element that Bush has deemed essential: legal immunity for the phone companies that cooperated in the National Security Agency wiretapping program he approved after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The vote came two and a half years after public disclosure of the wiretapping program set off a fierce national debate over the balance between protecting the country from another terrorist strike and ensuring civil liberties. The final outcome in Congress, which opponents of the surveillance measure had conceded for weeks, seemed almost anticlimactic in contrast.
Even as his political stature has waned, Bush has managed to maintain his dominance on national security issues over a Democratic-led Congress. He has beat back efforts to cut troops and financing in Iraq, and he has won important victories on issues like interrogation tactics and military tribunals in the fight against terrorism.
Bush, appearing in the Rose Garden just after his return from Japan, called the vote "long overdue."
He promised to sign the measure into law quickly, calling it critical to national security and saying the vote shows that "even in an election year, we can come together and get important pieces of legislation passed."
Debate over the surveillance law was the one area where Democrats had held firm in opposition. House Democrats went so far as to allow a temporary surveillance measure to expire in February, leading to a five-month impasse and prompting accusations from Bush that the nation's defenses against another strike by al-Qaida had been weakened.
But in the end Bush won out, as administration officials helped forge a deal between Republican and Democratic leaders that included almost all the major elements the White House wanted.
The measure gives the executive branch broader latitude in eavesdropping on people abroad and at home who it believes are tied to terrorism, and it reduces the role of a secret intelligence court in overseeing some operations.
Supporters maintained that the plan includes enough safeguards to protect Americans' civil liberties, including reviews by several inspectors general. There is nothing to fear in the bill, said Sen. Christopher Bond, R-Mo., who was a lead negotiator, "unless you have al-Qaida on your speed dial."
But some Democratic opponents saw the deal as capitulation to White House pressure by fellow Democrats.
"I urge my colleagues to stand up for the rule of law and defeat this bill," Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said Wednesday as the outcome was all but assured.
The final plan, which restructures the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed by Congress in 1978 in the wake of Watergate, reflected both political reality and legal practicality, supporters said.
Wiretapping orders approved by secret orders under the previous version of the surveillance law were set to begin expiring in August unless Congress acted. Heading into their political convention in Denver next month and on to the November congressional elections, many Democrats were wary of handing the Republicans a potent political weapon.
The issue put Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, in a particularly precarious spot. He had long opposed giving legal immunity to the phone companies that took part in the NSA's wiretapping program, even threatening a filibuster during his run for the nomination.
But on Wednesday he ended up voting for what he called "an improved but imperfect bill" after backing a failed attempt earlier in the day to strip the immunity provision from the bill through an amendment.
Sen. John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, was campaigning in Ohio and did not vote, though he has consistently supported the immunity plan.
As Congress repeatedly tried to find a legislative solution, the key stumbling block was Bush's insistence on legal immunity for the phone companies.
The program ended in January 2007, when the White House agreed to bring it under the auspices of the FISA court, but more than 40 lawsuits continued churning through federal courts, charging AT&T, Verizon and other major carriers with violating their customers' privacy by conducting wiretaps at the White House's direction without valid court orders.
The final deal effectively ends those lawsuits.