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.
"The most controversial matters are the ones that people use to form their opinions on their members of Congress," said Rep. Lincoln Davis (D-Tenn.), who voted for the administration's bill. "I do know within our caucus, and justifiably so, there are members who have a real distaste for some of the things the president has done. But to let that be the driving force for our actions to block the surveillance of someone and perhaps stop another attack like 9/11 would be unwise."
The administration's bill passed 227 to 183, with 41 Democrats joining all but two Republicans in favor.
Such divisions will not be easy to bridge in the coming weeks. Republicans have said that Democrats who are trying to close the Guantanamo Bay prison want to import terrorists to Americans' back yards. And they have said that those pushing to restore habeas corpus rights want to give terrorists the legal rights of U.S. citizens.
"People say to me, 'Well, what about the 30-second spots?' " said Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, referring to attack ads. He is pushing a bill to restore habeas corpus.
"If you just say you're standing up for civil liberties, the American people are with you, but if you say terrorism suspects should have civil liberties, it stretches Americans' tolerance," said Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin (D-Md.), who along with Hastings represents Congress on the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, a human rights monitor. "It's a tough issue for us."
Pelosi signaled last Thursday that she is serious about revisiting the warrantless-wiretapping law, which expires in January. In a rare recess conference call with House Democrats, she opened the session by having John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), chairman of the House Judiciary Committee, lay out his schedule for hearings on the issue, starting right after the break. She also instructed Conyers; Silvestre Reyes (Tex.), chairman of the House intelligence committee; and other committee chairmen to move quickly on draft legislation.
In the Senate, Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) are reviving their bill to give the secret Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court exclusive authority over wiretapping, with new provisions to enhance the government's ability to tap e-mail and other modern forms of communication.
Because the January deadline will force legislative action, some Democrats are cautiously optimistic that they can prevail this time. "I'm hopeful. Am I sanguine? Certainly not," Nadler said.
But others are pessimistic. Hastings said that Congress will probably be consumed with the Iraq war through the fall. He predicted that administration officials will announce that the current permissive law has thwarted terrorist attacks and saved lives but will withhold details as classified.
"Then Bush walks all the way to the end of his administration with no changes," he said.
If anything, the habeas corpus and Guantanamo Bay issues will be tougher. In June, nearly 150 House Democrats signed a letter by Moran urging the shuttering of the prison. But Moran said last week that he no longer thinks he could muster the votes to pass the measure, even though the move is supported by former secretary of state Colin L. Powell, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates. Republicans appear to have won the argument with their accusation that Democrats want to import terrorists.
A restoration of habeas corpus rights may have a better chance. Leahy said he will push the issue next month, and legislation co-sponsored by Conyers and Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, is likely to move through their committees this fall.
But political fear still hovers over any legislation that touches on the fight against terrorism, which, for Democrats, may be the new third rail of politics.
"We can do this, but you have to keep in mind Republicans care more about catching Democrats than catching terrorists," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus. "They have spent years taking Roosevelt's notion that we have nothing to fear but fear itself and given us nothing but fear."