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Telecom execs won't testify on taps
Senate Judiciary panel chairman backs off from questioning executives on cooperation with secret program, angering Democrats.

WASHINGTON (CNN) - Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter reversed course Tuesday, announcing he will not call on phone company executives to testify on their cooperation with the government in a secret eavesdropping program run by the National Security Agency.

The senator from Pennsylvania acknowledged his reversal was forced upon him by his Republican colleagues in a private session prior to the afternoon hearing. The announcement was promptly decried by several Democrats, who accused Specter of caving in to the Bush administration.

"We have abdicated our responsibility," shouted Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.

"You have given up the store," complained Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill., in denouncing the move. "You're just walking away."

Democrats were unable to muster enough members to force a vote on issuing subpoenas to the telecommunications giants AT&T (Research), Verizon Communications (Research) and Bell South (Research).

The potential for a showdown over subpoenas was averted when Republicans, led by former committee chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, outmaneuvered Specter in advance of the hearing.

Hatch disclosed he had won assurances from Vice President Cheney that the White House would at least review proposed legislation to restrict aspects of NSA surveillance programs. In exchange, the committee would not press the phone companies to divulge their cooperation with the government.

"We have a good-faith effort they'll work with us on this," Hatch said. "The offer is a good one."

"Why don't we just recess for the rest of the year and Cheney will just tell us what laws this nation will have?" fumed ranking Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

"I categorically reject the idea I'm backing off," Specter replied.

In a dissent, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., announced she would oppose subpoenas for the phone companies. Feinstein, who is on the Intelligence Committee, said she had been fully briefed on the secret NSA programs and believes if the phone companies should be summoned at all, it should be from the intelligence panel, which conducts its business behind closed doors.

"The phone companies, they're just trying to be good citizens and shouldn't be held out to dry," Feinstein said.

Specter said he would continue to vigorously challenge the White House claims of executive power on several fronts.

Specter announced he had won a promise from Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to testify "within the next two weeks" on a range of hotly debated issues on executive branch powers over which some Republicans and nearly all Democrats on the panel are bitterly at odds with the White House.

Justice Department officials acknowledge they are bracing for a potentially stormy hearing, but probably not as soon as Specter would like.

A senior Justice official who asked not to be identified said it was likely they would be able to arrange for Gonzales to testify before the committee "in the next two months." Top of page

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