A Senate Maverick Acts to Force an Issue
Wednesday, March 15, 2006
For months the Democrats have resisted calls from their liberal base to more aggressively challenge President Bush. Now a maverick Democratic senator from Wisconsin has forced his party and Congress to confront head-on the question of whether Bush should somehow be punished for secretly ordering warrantless wiretaps of U.S. citizens.
Sen. Russell Feingold's call this week to formally censure Bush for what some say was a clear violation of a federal statute regulating domestic surveillance has touched off a fierce debate on Capitol Hill that is likely to persist throughout the congressional campaign season.
GOP leaders who had been reeling from the impact of Republican political scandals, an unpopular war and Bush's mishandling of the port-security issue sensed that Feingold overplayed his hand and denounced the censure resolution as a political stunt by an ambitious lawmaker positioning himself to run for president in 2008. Many Democrats, while sympathetic to Feingold's maneuver, appeared to be distancing themselves from his resolution yesterday, wary of polls showing that a majority of Americans side with the president on wiretapping tactics.
Feingold, 53, says he is convinced that Bush broke the law in ordering National Security Agency wiretaps of overseas telephone calls and e-mails of U.S. citizens that involved people suspected of terrorist activities without first obtaining special court approval, and that his party must take a firm stand in protest. Unless Democrats make the case that they are more trustworthy than Republicans on national security issues, Feingold says, the party cannot win control of the White House or Congress.
"We have a great case that they have done a poor job of fighting the war against terrorism," Feingold said of the Republicans in an interview yesterday. "We need a different strategy, one that shows we stand for something."
Feingold's resolution, formally introduced Monday, would censure Bush for approving an "illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil." The senator's intention was to refer the matter to the Judiciary Committee for hearings and a vote before consideration by the full Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) tried to force an immediate vote, to put the Democrats on the spot, but Democratic leaders objected, and for now the censure measure appears to be stalled.
Censure, or official Senate condemnation, is a rare tool that has been used against only one president -- Andrew Jackson, in March 1834. Jackson ignored the censure, and it was expunged three years later. Censuring is a symbolic act compared with impeachment -- an indictment by the House permitted under the Constitution, which, if approved, leads to a Senate vote on acquittal or removal from office. Feingold has not called for Bush's impeachment, although the senator called the wiretapping case "right in the strike zone of the concept of high crimes and misdemeanors."
In the past two years, liberal groups have urged Congress to take action against Bush for various alleged misdeeds in the waging of war in Iraq and efforts to combat terrorism. In February 2004, MoveOn.org and other liberal groups called for Bush's censure because he used what proved to be false intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in justifying the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Last December, Rep. John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) called for an investigation of the administration's prewar use of intelligence and offered motions to censure Bush and Vice President Cheney for failing to respond to Democratic inquiries about the planning and execution of the war. Feingold's censure motion specifically addresses the issue of illegal wiretaps.
Republicans seized on Feingold's presidential ambitions as the motivation behind his bid. Feingold "should be ashamed of this political ploy," said Frist, who also has presidential ambitions.
Democratic views were mixed . Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) dismissed the proposed censure as "getting way down the road on this issue." When asked on NBC's "Today" show yesterday morning whether Feingold was "grandstanding for 2008," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), himself a 2008 prospect and a leading Democratic voice on foreign policy, replied: "No, I think it's more of an intense frustration. Do any of you in the news media or any of us have any idea what the president is doing?"
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he hoped the Feingold measure would spur the intelligence committee to complete an investigation of the wiretapping program, to determine whether Bush broke the law. "Senator Feingold is a man of principle," said Reid. "I think that people should cool their jets and let the process takes its course."
When Feingold first ran for the Senate in 1992, he was much the same person he is today: a Democratic outsider and iconoclast and a darling of progressives.
While other Democrats speak more colorfully, or show up more often on television, Feingold has carved a niche as one of the least-predictable senators. As he contemplates a presidential bid, he is emerging as an anti-establishment maverick, a blend of Howard Dean, John McCain and the late Wisconsin progressive senator William Proxmire.
The Rhodes scholar and Harvard Law School graduate was elected at age 29 to the Wisconsin legislature, defeating an incumbent by a handful of votes. He turned back two better-known Democratic challengers in the 1992 Senate primary by ignoring their mudslinging and running humorous ads, including one in which he conducted a tour of his Madison area home, noting the closet space and saying, "Look, no skeletons."
Feingold has shown little of that humor in the Senate. He rarely engages in small talk with colleagues and is so independent that fellow Democrats rarely seek his help in legislative battles or include him in public events. He irritated many colleagues in his long crusade for campaign finance reform, which Democrats feared would put them at a fundraising disadvantage; by his opposition to dropping all charges against President Bill Clinton during impeachment proceedings; and with his support for the confirmation of Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr.
But it is Feingold's national security views that have stirred the most controversy, vaulting him into the national spotlight. Before the censure bid, he was the first Senate Democrat to call for a troop withdrawal from Iraq, and he waged a solo filibuster against the renewal of the USA Patriot Act.
The left wing of the party has greeted Feingold's censure call ecstatically. He was the front-runner in a Jan. 31 survey of 2008 presidential candidates by the liberal blog Daily Kos. Feingold garnered 30 percent support among the more than 11,000 respondents, eclipsing retired Gen. Wesley K. Clark, who dropped to second place after leading in the previous five bimonthly polls.
Feingold said he is "extremely pleased with the way this is going." He said he is particularly buoyed the barrage of criticism from Republicans. "If such a crazy idea has such limited appeal, why do they have the attack dogs calling all over the country about this?" Feingold asked. "It touches a nerve."