Terrorism Policies Split Democrats

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By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 30, 2007

A growing clamor among rank-and-file Democrats to halt President Bush's most controversial tactics in the fight against terrorism has exposed deep divisions within the party, with many Democrats angry that they cannot defeat even a weakened president on issues that they believe should be front and center.

The Democrats' failure to rein in wiretapping without warrants, close the detention facility at Guantanamo Bay or restore basic legal rights such as habeas corpus for terrorism suspects has opened the party's leaders to fierce criticism from some of their staunchest allies -- on Capitol Hill, among liberal bloggers and at interest groups.

At the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress yesterday, panelists discussing the balance between security and freedom lashed out at Democratic leaders for not standing up to the White House. "These are matters of principle," said Mark Agrast, a senior fellow at the center. "You don't temporize."

The American Civil Liberties Union is running Internet advertisements depicting House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) as sheep.

"Bush wanted more power to eavesdrop on ordinary Americans, and we just followed along. I guess that's why they call us the Democratic leadersheep," say the two farm animals in the ad, referring to Congress's passage of legislation granting Bush a six-month extension and expansion of his warrantless wiretapping program.

Rep. Rush D. Holt (D-N.J.), who leads a newly created House select intelligence oversight panel, lamented, "Democrats have been slow to recognize they are in the majority now and can go back to really examine the fundamentals of what we should be doing to protect democracy."

Reid and Pelosi promised last week that they would at least confront the president next month over his wiretapping program, with Pelosi taking an uncompromising stand in a private conference call with House Democrats. When lawmakers return in September, Democrats will also push legislation to restore habeas corpus rights for terrorism suspects and may resume an effort to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But conservative Democrats and some party leaders continue to worry that taking on those issues would expose them to Republican charges that they are weak on terrorism. And advocates of a strong push on the terrorism issues are increasingly skeptical that they can prevail.

"I don't think it's that we're reluctant to take on Bush," said Rep. Alcee L. Hastings (Fla.), a senior member of the House intelligence committee. "I think it's we are reluctant to take on each other. . . . If I can fast-forward to September, October, November, December and see where we'll be, we'll be nowhere."

Said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (Va.): "I would've thought the administration would have been bereft of credibility by now, but they seem to be able to get what they want from this Congress."

The terrorism issue came to a head early this month in an explosive final closed-door House Democratic Caucus meeting before the August recess. Reps. Hastings, Moran, Melvin Watt (N.C.), John F. Tierney (Mass.) and Jerrold Nadler (N.Y.) pleaded with party leaders not to bring to a vote a White House bill extending the administration's authority to listen in on electronic communications from abroad without a warrant.

Conservative Democrats, including Rep. Allen Boyd (Fla.), argued just as vociferously that Democrats dare not leave on vacation without passing the White House bill.


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