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.
Henry was unsatisfied. "So do you support censure, or not?
Stabenow took another stab. "It needs to have hearings," she said.
Mary Landrieu (La.) pursed her lips. "Senator Feingold has a point that he wants to make," she said. "We have a point that we want to make, talking about the budget."
"Senators," an aide interrupted, "we need to go."
Next in the Senate TV gallery came Schumer. An aide hung up a poster showing a port. The senator called the ports situation "extremely troubling." The aide hung up a poster of an Exxon cartoon. "Obscene profits," decreed Schumer, equally passionately.
CNN's Henry asked the Feingold question. Schumer ended the news conference.
Outside the Democrats' lunch downstairs, the senators were similarly agile. The number two Democratic leader, Richard Durbin (Ill.), darted out of an elevator and into lunch when he thought nobody was looking.
"I haven't made any judgment," said Jeff Bingaman (N.M.). Two minutes later, he reappeared. "I will support an alternative that would call for an investigation," he amended.
The one Democrat happy to talk was Feingold, who, in a pre-lunch chat with reporters, seemed to enjoy his colleagues' squirms. "I'm concerned about the approach Democrats are taking, which is too often cowering," he said.
Feingold, seeking liberals' support for the 2008 presidential nomination, said he wasn't motivated by politics. But then he slipped. "If there's any Democrat out there who can't say . . . the president has no right to make up his own laws, I don't know if that Democrat really is the right candidate," he said of his likely primary opponents.
After an hour of closed-door negotiations, Democrats were no closer to resolving the Feingold rift.
"Most of us feel at best it's premature," announced Sen. Christopher Dodd (Conn.). "I don't think anyone can say with any certainty at this juncture that what happened is illegal."
Dodd must not have checked with Sen. Tom Harkin (Iowa). "The president broke the law and he needs to be held accountable," he said. "Talk about high crimes and misdemeanors!" Harkin said he'll vote for the Feingold resolution -- if it comes up.
That gives Feingold two solid votes, including his own. The rest: avowedly undecided.
Schumer, leaving the lunch, still hadn't found his voice. " He's gonna talk about it," Schumer said, pointing to Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid (Nev.).
Reporters, as instructed, asked Reid where he stood. "It's a question that's been asked 33 times in the last few hours," he said. "And so, for the 34th time, I'm going to say the same thing: I'm going to wait . . .''