GOP Uses Surveillance Bill to Bash Democrats

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008

Republicans are convinced that highlighting their counterterrorism policies will be a political winner in this presidential election year, and they have focused this week on Democratic opposition to their version of a new surveillance bill as a way to paint Democrats as soft on national security, according to GOP lawmakers and their aides.

Democrats respond that they are unfazed by the attacks, arguing that most Americans doubt the credibility of President Bush and Republicans when it comes to warning about security threats.

Bush and GOP lawmakers have been releasing a blizzard of public statements and organizing multiple news conferences to pressure the House to adopt a Senate bill renewing and expanding a temporary surveillance law called the Protect America Act. The measure would grant legal immunity to telecommunications companies over their cooperation in warrantless wiretapping done after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

House Democratic leaders oppose the immunity provision and maneuvered to allow the temporary statute to expire on Feb. 16. The administration has repeatedly said that telecom firms need protection from lawsuits in order to cooperate with the government.

The House Republican Conference has created an Internet advertisement, available on the committee's Web site and on YouTube, warning that "America is at risk" because of the standoff. An outside nonprofit group headed by a former Republican National Committee official has also launched a national television advertising campaign targeting more than a dozen House Democrats around the country.

The activity reflects the Republicans' view that they are on the winning side of a politically important issue, GOP lawmakers and aides say. During a speech at the RNC in January, former presidential adviser Karl Rove cited the fight over the surveillance bill as one of four key issues that GOP candidates should highlight during the campaign season, according to a transcript of his remarks.

"The House Democrat leaders are on the wrong side of the American people on this," said Brian Schubert, spokesman for the House Republican Conference.

But Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, accused Republicans of engaging in "fear-mongering." He said the dispute hinges on whether to protect "big phone companies."

"We're willing to stand up to this and bring some balance to this debate," Emanuel said in an interview yesterday.

Bush, who has spoken about the surveillance issue almost daily since the temporary law expired, said yesterday that the House's failure to pass new legislation is "inexcusable" and "indefensible."

One of the most visible attacks in the debate has come from a newly created advocacy group, Defense of Democracies, which has produced a series of television advertisements that began airing last Friday in 15 congressional districts represented by freshman Democrats.

A national version of the ad also aired Tuesday night during the Democratic presidential debate on MSNBC. The spot, which includes footage of al-Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden, alleges that the dispute has "crippled" the nation's surveillance capabilities and urges viewers to "tell the House of Representatives to do its job and pass the terrorist surveillance bill to keep us all safe."

The group is headed by Clifford D. May, a former RNC communications director who also heads the similarly named Foundation for Defense of Democracies. Spokesman Brian Wise said the nonprofit group that sponsored the ad was formed last week because tax rules prohibit the foundation from issuing advocacy ads.

The ads have angered some of the Democrats who are listed as advisers to the foundation, which was formed as a nonpartisan policy group after the Sept. 11 attacks. At least four, including Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.) and prominent strategist Donna Brazile, have quit the foundation because of the ad campaign. Brazile said in a statement that the group "has morphed into a radical right wing organization that is doing the dirty work for the Bush Administration and Congressional Republicans."

Wise disputed the criticism. He said the ad campaign is "not partisan" because it focuses on supporting a surveillance bill that was passed by the Senate with the backing of many Democrats.

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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