I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Friday, August 04, 2006

Are Democrats taking a stand on the Specter bill?

There is, in my view, no more important domestic political goal than blocking enactment of the Specter/FISA bill, for reasons I explained here and here. Although there are some signs of potentially serious opposition to the bill among key House Republicans, the White House will likely be able to navigate past those, leaving a Democrat-led Senate fillibuster the only realistic option for stopping this bill.

Relying on Democratic resolve to impede the White House's agenda has been a sure way to subject oneself to great frustration and disappointment, and that is particularly true when it comes to policies which the administration justifies on anti-terrorism grounds. But yesterday there were some very encouraging signs that Democrats might be serious about blocking this bill:

A White House-endorsed plan to formally legalize the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program ran into more political problems yesterday in the Senate, as Democrats successfully maneuvered to block a committee vote on the proposal. . . .

The developments spell further difficulties for Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), whose surveillance proposal has earned the endorsement of Bush and Vice President Cheney but has run into fierce opposition from Senate Democrats and a competing proposal from House Republicans.

Best of all, this was apparently accomplished with some tenacious and resolute maneuvers to block the vote from proceeding:

Specter was successful in getting his proposed language adopted as a bill by voice vote during a committee meeting yesterday, but Democrats thwarted his desire for a full vote by making speeches until there was no longer a quorum, officials said. Specter was also rebuffed in his attempt to reconvene the meeting in another room, officials said.

Specter has made passage of this bill the top priority of his Judiciary Committee, and he was rather dismissive about the ability of Democrats to stop him, all but challenging them to filibuster:

Specter said in an interview late yesterday that, while he will continue to seek compromise with critics, he is confident the bill will proceed with or without Democratic support.

"As chairman I can set the agenda, and it's going to be on the top of the agenda," Specter said. "I would be sorry to see a party-line vote on it, but that's where it's headed . . . We have enough votes to get it out of committee . . . and we might have enough votes to get it passed."

Specter boasts that he is confident of getting this bill passed, but he certainly doesn't sound confident ("we might have enough votes to get it passed"). And despite the scores of constitutional law experts, editorial boards and commentators across the political spectrum who have warned of the grave dangers posed by this bill, Specter claims that opposition to his bill is due not to its complete capitulation to the Bush theory of a monarchical presidency, but instead that "the Democratic opposition to his proposal stems not in part from Bush's faltering popularity":

"There's a real opposition to the president today which you see everywhere, and it manifests itself here. . . . There's an attitude that if the president's in favor of it, there must be something wrong with it."

There is no doubt that the collapse of the Bush presidency is what is enabling Democrats to feel sufficiently comfortable to block this legislation. But that political factor should not be confused with the extremely serious dangers posed by this legislation -- dangers which Sen. Diane Feinstein at least claims to recognize:

Sen. Diane Feinstein (D-Calif.) called the proposal "worse than no bill at all," arguing that it would weaken current surveillance law and would "allow the president to exercise unchecked authority."

Equally encouraging, Judiciary Committee Democrats vowed "to block the confirmation of Steven G. Bradbury, who serves as the acting head of the Justice Department's office of legal counsel," until the President issues the security clearances necessary to enable the Justice Department to investigate its lawyers' role in authorizing the NSA warrantless eavesdropping program. To hear Democrats demanding a real investigation into the NSA program is a surprising but welcome development.

Christy at FDL previously posted the telephone numbers of Judiciary Committee members, to enable protests to be lodged against the Specter bill. It would, I think, be both constructive and appropriate to now contact Democrats on the Committee in order to commend them for their efforts yesterday and to urge more of the same, up to and including a filibuster if necessary. There is a large and growing group of Americans who are highly alarmed by executive power abuses -- abuses which would be uniquely strengthened by enactment of the Specter bill -- and Senate Democrats ought to know that taking a stand against it, a real stand, will be vigorously supported.

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