The House and the Senate have been unable to agree on a bill to replace the law expanding US authority to track enemy targets without a court order which expired last month.

The objections of Democrats to protecting telecoms companies have led to Republicans accusing them of undermining national security, while Democrats have accused Republicans of fear-mongering ahead of the presidential election.

'Scare tactics'

"It is time to reject the scare tactics of the Bush administration and enact this carefully crafted legislation," Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat, said.

"Their bill would make it easier for class-action trial lawyers to sue companies whose only offence is that they are alleged to have assisted in efforts to protect the country"

Tony Fratto,
White House spokesman
But Tony Fratto, White House spokesman, criticised the bill.

"Their bill would make it easier for class-action trial lawyers to sue companies whose only offence is that they are alleged to have assisted in efforts to protect the country after the attacks of September 11."

About 40 lawsuits have accused AT&T Inc, Verizon Communications Inc and Sprint Nextel Corp of violating the privacy rights of law-abiding Americans swept up in the electronic surveillance of telephone calls and emails.

While the bill passed by the House would not grant immunity, it would allow phone companies to present their cases in a closed-door court, with the judge given access to confidential documents about the surveillance and the authorisation for it.

Bush has backed a competing bill overwhelmingly approved by the Senate last month that would bolster US electronic surveillance and grant phone companies retroactive immunity.