Sen. Russ Feingold’s (D-Wis.) early moves this year to ban the death penalty and amend the Constitution look like the bold strokes of a liberal lawmaker feeling liberated by a Democratic White House.
But despite the steady stream of bill introductions and press releases, Feingold’s frenetic pace and legislative to-do list are remarkably consistent even in an air of change ushered in by President Barack Obama.
“My level of activity is the same it’s always been. There’s just a greater possibility of actually accomplishing things,— Feingold said. “There’s a much higher comfort level with the president now than before.—
In Obama, Feingold has found a fellow Midwesterner and former constitutional law professor who shares a passion for legal issues and government oversight.
He has also found an ally on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue interested in banning alleged torture techniques used during the Bush administration and focusing on “restoring the rule of law.—
“There are things the president can do on his own,— Feingold said, pointing to Obama’s early moves to close the Guantánamo Bay prison in Cuba and end the use of torture when interrogating terrorism suspects.
But Feingold does not want to stop there.
The lone Senator to vote against the USA PATRIOT Act in 2002, Feingold wants to end wiretapping and surveillance programs authorized under the controversial law. He penned a letter to Obama shortly after Election Day asking the president-elect to take “concrete steps to restore the rule of law after the eight-year assault by the Bush Administration,— and to support a complete overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
“That will be a test for the administration,— Feingold said defiantly. “They need to get behind changes.—
The tough talk matches Feingold’s push for reining in executive branch powers, which he charges were widely abused during the Bush years. He challenged Obama to treat Congress “as a partner rather than a nuisance— on intelligence matters, and hinted that he would introduce legislation later this year on surveillance issues that the administration “may not be as open to.—
“He’s not a Johnny-come-lately on these issues,— a senior Democratic aide said, noting that Feingold’s independent streak is viewed within the Democratic Conference as more of an interesting quirk than as an irritant. “He’s very principled, very thoughtful and very forthright. Those are very important traits to have with a maverick.—
Feingold can be a thorn in the side of the Democratic leadership. He was one of three Democrats to vote against the $410 billion omnibus spending package last month, requiring leaders to scramble for GOP support.
But Feingold said he enjoys a “very cordial— relationship with Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), and as a Deputy Whip, he attends weekly meetings that keep him in close contact with the leadership team.
“What he has is the understanding of leadership,— a Democratic leadership aide said. “Whether everyone in the caucus agrees with him on an issue or doesn’t agree with him on an issue, he’s doing things out of his strong-held beliefs.—
Those beliefs occasionally create difficulties — especially on the Iraq War. Feingold got a floor vote on his bill to redeploy troops from the region, which proved an uncomfortable vote for a handful of Members in his own caucus.
This year, Feingold seems focused on legislating. Judging by bill introductions alone, Feingold wants to end Congressional pay raises, give the president line-item veto power, squash earmarks and bring the stodgy Senate into the Internet age with legislation requiring electronic filings of financial disclosure forms.
Feingold also wants to amend the Constitution — a massive undertaking that would require a two-thirds approval by the House and Senate and ratification by 38 states.
In the wake of the saga surrounding Roland Burris’ (D-Ill.) ascent to the Senate, Feingold, who chairs the Judiciary Subcommittee on Constitution, introduced an amendment requiring Senate vacancies be filled through special elections instead of gubernatorial appointments.
Feingold has conducted a bicameral hearing on his constitutional amendment and introduced 23 bills during the opening weeks of the 111th Congress. But he says there’s plenty of time for him to press his priorities this year.
“It’s early,— he said.
Correction: March 31, 2009
The article misstated the number of Democratic Senators voting against the omnibus.