Democrats Vow Not to Fold in Spy Law Clash

Posted January 28, 2008 at 6:59pm

What a difference six months makes. Back in August, Democrats were running scared from GOP taunts that they were going to be responsible for the next undetected terrorist attack on U.S. soil unless they quickly passed a new wiretapping bill.

Now the GOP-sponsored measure Democrats let slide into law is about to expire, but Democrats don’t appear to be sweating it as much. This time, they feel like they have President Bush and Senate Republicans to blame if the Protect America Act expires on Feb. 1.

“The only thing the president does well is frighten the American people,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on Monday. “Everything we’ve tried to do with [the terrorist surveillance measure], he’s stood in our way.”

Plus, Democrats say the expiring law allows current wiretaps to continue, and Bush could always go get new warrants from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court — a process the administration has complained is too time-consuming. But Reid has been trying to give himself more time to get around a Democratic-led filibuster and differences with the House by passing a 30-day extension of the current law.

[IMGCAP(1)]The House, at least, will vote on extending the law for a month this week. As of press time, that vote was expected Tuesday. Reid has tried repeatedly to get unanimous consent to pass an extension, but Senate Republicans have objected and voted en masse Monday against such a proposal.

Bush and Senate Republicans are attempting to re-create their August coup and force Democrats in both chambers to pass a White House-blessed bill that would protect telecommunications companies from lawsuits related to their wiretapping assistance. The measure also would reauthorize the Protect America Act’s broad powers to eavesdrop on foreign communications routed to or through the United States.

Bush has threatened to veto any extension of the law, and Senate Republicans attempted to wrest control of the chamber from Democrats last week by filing a motion to limit debate, or invoke cloture, on the surveillance bill.

“I’ve never seen anything quite as cynical and counterproductive as the Republican approach to [the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act],” Reid said Monday afternoon on the Senate floor.

Even the Democratic sponsor of the Senate bill — Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.) — voted against bringing debate on the bill to a close. Only four Democrats voted with the majority of Republicans on Monday night in a vote that fell 12 votes short of the 60 votes needed.

Senate Republicans say they have an obligation to take the tack they have, which they describe as attempting to beat back a Democratic-led filibuster and pass a bill through the Senate before Friday.

“The only way to overcome a filibuster is to file cloture,” explained one Senate GOP leadership aide. The aide added that Senate Democrats have had six months to resolve their internal disputes. “This didn’t sneak up on anybody.”

Republicans also threw up their own roadblocks to the bill by demanding that amendments to the bill must overcome a 60-vote threshold for adoption. That’s something Reid said was unacceptable.

The GOP stance “continues to apply pressure to the process that will get the outcome we want,” Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) said. Thune added that Republicans oppose extending the law, even for a month, because they fear Democrats will simply continue to try to pass short-term extensions without dealing with their intraparty squabble over immunity for telecommunications companies.

But in this latest game of chicken over surveillance, Reid indicated he’s less likely to blink first.

“If it does expire, because of the Republican tactics, surveillance will not end. Even if they stop us from extending the bill, it won’t end,” Reid said on the floor. “Again, no one is arguing the law should be allowed to expire. Doing so would send the wrong message, but it still is going to … ensure that our war on terror will not be adversely affected. Anyone who says otherwise from the president on down is not being truthful.”

But with Feb. 1 just three days away, Republicans hope Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) will feel increasing pressure from fellow Democrats to simply pass the Senate measure without amendment.

“Is the president going to use this as a political bludgeon?” asked one House Democratic aide. “The sense here is that he won’t be effective, but there are some who’ve expressed concern that we need to get something done quickly.”

Even so, those concerns appear to be relatively minor, considering the Members most likely to complain — moderate Democrats — are not yet agitating for speedy action or capitulation to the White House.

“We have plenty of time to do this,” one aide said to a centrist Senate Democrat. “We fully expect the president to demagogue the hell out it. … But the law expires; the authority doesn’t.”

This aide’s boss actually is “annoyed” at Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) for “pulling this stunt” on a bill that could have been worked out between the two parties, the aide said.

While some moderates would rather have the issue go away, it hardly rises to the top of the pile for them, another aide to a moderate Democrat said.

Of course, all four Democrats who voted with Republicans on Monday — Sens. Blanche Lincoln (Ark.), Mark Pryor (Ark.) , Mary Landrieu (La.) and Ben Nelson (Neb.) — were moderates.

Though they feel pretty good about their ability to stand up to the president and Republicans, Democrats aren’t yet giving up on their attempts to get an extension of the law, and they’re hoping that the rhetoric will cool down now that Bush has delivered his State of the Union speech.

“There is a strong desire to pass something and keep this [program] going,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said. “Sen. Reid has committed to going through the usual process. The Republicans just have to say yes.”