Playing games with breaking the law

Frist tries to embarrass Democrats on Feingold resolution. Do they really need the help?


Tim Grieve
March 14, 2006 7:29PM (UTC)

You might think that questions involving war and the rule of law are worthy of careful thought and serious debate in the U.S. Congress. That's not how the Republican leadership sees things. When Rep. Jack Murtha introduced a resolution in November calling for the redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq "at the earliest date practicable," House Republicans responded by jamming House Democrats with an immediate vote on a resolution demanding the instant withdrawal of troops. Rep. Jean Schmidt called Murtha a "coward," Democrats were forced to vote down a measure they didn't propose, Murtha's resolution disappeared and conditions in Iraq have only grown worse.

Bill Frist apparently liked the way that one worked out, so much so that he tried the same trick Monday when Russ Feingold introduced a resolution censuring George W. Bush for engaging in warrantless spying on American citizens and misleading the country about it. After accusing Feingold of providing comfort to America's enemies, Frist tried to schedule an immediate vote on the resolution in order to isolate the Wisconsin Democrat and/or embarrass his all-talk, no-action colleagues.

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It worked. Democrats blocked the immediate vote Frist wanted. Some, like Joe Lieberman, simply want nothing to do with censuring Bush. Others, like Nancy Pelosi, are making the not-unreasonable argument that the House and Senate should conduct a real investigation into the president's warrantless spying program -- the kind of investigation the Republicans have blocked -- before deciding what to do about it. But the press coverage -- the thing that probably matters on a resolution that's symbolic anyway -- is all about how Democrats caved. "Democrats Beat Quick Retreat on Call to Censure President," says the New York Times. Frist's framing prevailed. He set up a phony test: Are you on board for censure right this very minute? When Democrats said "not yet," they could be accused of "retreating" from a measure they'd never endorsed in the first place.

Now, we're not saying that Democrats passed any legitimate tests Monday, either. Pelosi said there should be an investigation into the warrantless spying program. Dick Durbin said he thought that Feingold's resolution might be a "catalyst" for one. If Democrats use it that way -- if they push for an investigation and vow to get behind the censure resolution if the Republicans continue to block one -- then they'll have done the right thing even if they lost a news cycle in the process.

We're not holding our breath.

Although polls are starting to show that voters have lost faith in the president on national security issues, Democrats still seem cowed by the scary talk coming out of his administration. Dick Cheney said Monday that Feingold was trying to "protect our enemies' ability to communicate," and he accused Democrats of thinking that George W. Bush is "the enemy" in the war on terror. "The American people already made their decision," Cheney said. "They agree with the president." We'll confess to having no idea what the vice president meant. If Cheney was referring to the 2004 election, his comments are a non sequitur. The American people didn't know about the warrantless spying program then, in part because the president was telling them -- falsely, as it turns out -- that the government still gets a "court order" every time it engages in wiretapping. And if Cheney was referring to polling -- and the White House never looks at polls, remember -- then his comments are simply wrong. As a national poll released earlier this month shows, a solid majority of Americans believe that the government should get a warrant before listening in on phone calls to or from the United States.

The mainstream press can't seem to comprehend that Americans are capable of making the distinction, that they can reject the false choice of surveillance or no surveillance when there's a third option, the option that the law allows: surveillance with warrants. And as long as the administration keeps pressing that false choice, and as long as the press keeps buying it, the Democrats will probably continue to think they're stuck in some kind of a rock-and-a-hard-place deal. They're not. There's a legal way to do the surveillance the Bush administration says it needs to do. It's the way a majority of the American people want that surveillance done. Is it too much to ask that members of Congress -- on both sides of the aisle -- engage in the serious work required to make sure that the law of the land and the will of the people are taken seriously by the man who will occupy the White House for the next three years?


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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