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Friday, September 08, 2006

A Bipartisan Stand for the Rule of Law

From Congressional Quarterly (registration required):

Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter said he might ask Majority Leader Bill Frist to take legislation on the National Security Agency's warrantless surveillance program straight to the Senate floor after opponents on Thursday again blocked the panel from voting on the measure.

"I just may ask the leader to do that," Specter, R-Pa., said after the committee meeting.

Several Democrats made lengthy opening statements against Specter's bill before the committee voted along party lines to reject two amendments by Wisconsin Democrat Russ Feingold that would have deleted entire sections of the bill.

Specter then announced that someone had invoked a Senate rule that forbids committees from meeting for more than two hours after the start of the day's session without unanimous consent.

Specter decried "filibuster by speech, filibuster by amendment [and] obstructionism." Democrats used the same tactics to block consideration of the measure in early August.

Earlier this year, Specter struck a compromise with the White House that would have President Bush submit the NSA program for review by a secret federal court established under a 1978 law, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, if Congress sends him Specter's bill without any changes he dislikes.

Opponents of Specter's bill say the measure would hand Bush far too much power to conduct warrantless surveillance - and immunize the government from legal challenges to such surveillance - in return for that pledge.

Feingold said Specter's bill would be "a dramatic expansion of presidential power."

Bill Frist responded with a line of bullshit.

"The same day that the Democrats release their security agenda, they pull a political stunt in the Judiciary Committee forcing a delay on Sen. Specter's terrorist surveillance bill," said Frist spokeswoman Amy Call. "How can they claim they are for a security agenda while obstructing legislation that would make sure we can intercept terrorists' communications before they can carry out their plots?"

It's bullshit because you can legally wiretap terrorism suspects. The Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) allows officials to seek a warrant for up to 72 hours after wiretapping has begun. FISA is no obstruction to the war on terrorism and the Specter's legislation is just a way to cover Bush's ass after he got caught breaking the law. Rightwing idiots will tell you over and over that they need to be able to listen in on terrorists, but there is absolutely nothing that prevents them from doing that legally.

And it isn't just Feingold and democrats who are blocking this legislation, both republicans and democrats on the committee are concerned. In a letter to Specter, committee members told him 'we believe that additional information is necessary before the Senate can responsibly consider legislation that would dramatically alter FISA and significantly expand the surveillance authority of the executive branch.'

"We appreciate that you're seeking to guarantee judicial review of the NSA program in the FISA court," the letter says, "But last month's federal court decision suggests that the courts will have the opportunity to review the program without legislation." A scan of the full letter is available, here.

In other words, a bad deal to get Bush's wiretapping under judicial review is unnecessary, since the program is already being reviewed by courts. Signatories to the letter include Lisa Murkowski (R), John Sununu (R) and, Feingold (D). Specter's bill is facing not so much democratic obstruction, but a bipartisan concern about executive abuse of power and the integrity of law.

The parliamentary maneuvering to keep this off the floor suggests Feingold as the architect. The invocation of the two hour rule -- after burning up two hours making statements and voting on doomed amendments -- amounts to a sort of 'mini-fillibuster'.

Feingold and Specter have knocked heads before:

A Senate committee approved a constitutional amendment banning same-sex marriage yesterday, after a shouting match that ended when one Democrat strode out and the Republican chairman bid him "good riddance."

"I don't need to be lectured by you. You are no more a protector of the Constitution than am I," Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) shouted after Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) declared his opposition to the amendment, his affinity for the Constitution and his intention to leave the meeting.

"If you want to leave, good riddance," Specter finished.

"I've enjoyed your lecture, too, Mr. Chairman," replied Feingold, who is considering a run for president in 2008. "See ya."

Amid increasing partisan tension over President Bush's judicial nominees and domestic wiretapping, the panel voted 10 to 8 along party lines to send the constitutional amendment -- which would prohibit states from recognizing same-sex marriages -- to the Senate, where it stands little chance. [Washinton Post, May 2006]

In that instance, Specter had scheduled the vote in the President's Room off the senate floor, where the press wouldn't be allowed. By storming out of the vote, Feingold brought the vote to public attention, when it would've been a backroom deal.

Neither vote the gay marriage vote nor the NSA vote needed to happen. The same sex marriage ban stood no chance of ever passing (Specter himself voted against it after voting it out of committee) and this bill has been made unnecessary because the program is already in the courts.

As it stands now, all the bill would accomplish would be to retroactively legalize a crime committed by the president. As I wrote earlier, Bush has used his program to monitor journalists and nonviolent peace groups -- possibly even democrats -- and there's no reason to legalize that sort of abuse.

The bill, s. 737, the Security And Freedom Enhancement (SAFE) Act, serves no purpose other than to remove a High Crime or Misdemeanor from the President's record. Contact your senator and tell them there's no reason to legalize crime.


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