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The Feingold Resolution and the Sound of Silence

Sen. Russell Feingold, center, confers with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, left, and Minority Whip Richard Durbin.
Sen. Russell Feingold, center, confers with Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, left, and Minority Whip Richard Durbin. (By Jason Reed -- Reuters)

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By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Democratic senators, filing in for their weekly caucus lunch yesterday, looked as if they'd seen a ghost.

"I haven't read it," demurred Barack Obama (Ill.).

"I just don't have enough information," protested Ben Nelson (Neb.). "I really can't right now," John Kerry (Mass.) said as he hurried past a knot of reporters -- an excuse that fell apart when Kerry was forced into an awkward wait as Capitol Police stopped an aide at the magnetometer.

Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) brushed past the press pack, shaking her head and waving her hand over her shoulder. When an errant food cart blocked her entrance to the meeting room, she tried to hide from reporters behind the 4-foot-11 Barbara Mikulski (Md.).

"Ask her after lunch," offered Clinton's spokesman, Philippe Reines. But Clinton, with most of her colleagues, fled the lunch out a back door as if escaping a fire.

In a sense, they were. The cause of so much evasion was S. Res. 398, the resolution proposed Monday by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) calling for the censure of President Bush for his warrantless wiretapping program. At a time when Democrats had Bush on the ropes over Iraq, the budget and port security, Feingold single-handedly turned the debate back to an issue where Bush has the advantage -- and drove another wedge through his party.

So nonplused were Democrats that even Sen. Charles Schumer (N.Y.), known for his near-daily news conferences, made history by declaring, "I'm not going to comment." Would he have a comment later? "I dunno," the suddenly shy senator said.

Republicans were grateful for the gift. The office of Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) put a new "daily feature" on its Web site monitoring the censure resolution: "Democrat co-sponsors of Feingold Resolution: 0."

Many of Feingold's Democratic colleagues agree that Bush abused his authority with the NSA spying program. And they know liberal Democratic activists are eager to see Bush censured, or worse. But they also know Feingold's maneuver could cost them seats in GOP states.

Hence the elaborate efforts to avoid comment. Five Democratic senators called a news conference yesterday to talk about the Bush budget's "dangerously irresponsible priorities" -- but three of them fled the room before allowing questions. The other two were stuck.

"Was it a good idea for Senator Feingold to bring up this resolution?" came the first question, from CNN's Ed Henry.

"He brings up some very important issues," Debbie Stabenow (Mich.) ventured.


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