WASHINGTON (CNN) - Vice President Dick Cheney warned Congress Wednesday that a "day of reckoning" is near if it doesn't soon pass a bill to replace an expiring law that expanded the government's ability to conduct warrantless surveillance of suspected terrorists.
In a speech before the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank, Cheney called on lawmakers to make permanent the temporary changes that helped close a gap in the intelligence community's ability to gather information important to national security.
Last August, Congress hurriedly passed the Protect America Act (PAA) after the Director of National Intelligence told the lawmakers that technology changes had hampered the ability to collect intelligence against terrorists. The law expires February 1.
The vice president also pushed Congress to give immunity to telecommunications companies who assist the government in the warrantless eavesdropping on terrorists believed to be overseas even if those calls should involve conversations with people in the United States.
Cheney said telecommunications companies are facing dozens of lawsuits and they "should not be punished" for helping the government track al Qaeda terrorists. Without immunity, Cheney warned, the private sector "might be extremely reluctant to comply with future requests from the government even if necessary to protect American lives," a risk he called "unacceptable."
Congress had been divided over whether to provide immunity. The Senate is set to begin debate Wednesday night on the controversial bill, which does include immunity for the telecommunications companies. The legislation faces a number of amendments including one to strip the immunity provision. The House has already passed a version of the bill without immunity.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nevada, wanted to extend the PAA for a month to give Congress more time to pass the legislation, but Republicans and the White House are opposed.
–CNN National Security Producer Pam Benson