updated 3/31/2006 12:30:42 PM ET 2006-03-31T17:30:42

Nixon White House counselor John Dean asserted Friday that President Bush’s domestic spying exceeds the wrongdoing that toppled his former boss from power, and a veteran Republican snapped that Democrats were trying to “score political points” with motion to censure Bush.

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“Had the Senate or House, or both, censured or somehow warned Richard Nixon, the tragedy of Watergate might have been prevented,” Dean told the Senate Judiciary Committee. “Hopefully the Senate will not sit by while even more serious abuses unfold before it.”

Testifying to a Senate committee on Wisconsin Democratic Sen. Russell Feingold’s resolution to censure Bush, Dean said the president “needs to be told he cannot simply ignore a law with no consequences.”

Republicans, who scheduled the hearing, dismissed Feingold’s resolution as an election year stunt.

At issue is whether Bush’s secretive domestic spying program violates the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Bush has said the National Security Agency’s secretive wiretapping program is aimed at finding terrorists before they strike on American soil by tapping the phones of people making calls overseas. He has launched a criminal investigation to find out who leaked the program’s existence to the New York Times, saying it compromised national security.

Feingold’s measure would condemn Bush’s “unlawful authorization of wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining the court orders required” by the FISA act.

Dean: Separation vs. isolation
“To me, this is not really and should not be a partisan question,” Dean told the panel. “I think it’s a question of institutional pride of this body, of the Congress of the United States.”

He added in prepared testimony that if Congress doesn’t have the stomach for Feingold’s resolution as drafted, it should pass some measure serving Bush a warning.

“The resolution should be amended, not defeated, because the president needs to be reminded that separation of powers does not mean an isolation of powers,” Dean said in prepared remarks.

Chairman Arlen Specter, R-Pa., said Feingold’s resolution has no merit.

“But it provides a forum for the discussion of issues which really ought to be considered in greater depth than they have been,” Specter said at the session’s open.

Feingold told the panel that censure is not only an appropriate response, but Congress’ duty.

“If we in the Congress don’t stand up for ourselves and the American people, we become complicit in the lawbreaking,” Feingold said. “The resolution of censure is the appropriate response.”

Wartime warning
But Hatch said that passing a censure resolution would do more harm than good.

“Wartime is not a time to weaken the commander-in-chief,” he said.

The title of Dean’s 2004 book, “Worse Than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush,” made his view of the administration clear even before the wiretapping program became public.

After The New York Times revealed the program in December, Dean wrote that “Bush may have outdone Nixon” and be worthy not just of censure but impeachment.

Dean served four months in prison for his role in Watergate, a political scandal that involved illegal wiretapping, burglary and abuse of power aimed at Nixon enemies. Administration officials were implicated in the ensuing cover-up.

Nixon resigned Aug. 9, 1974, less than two weeks after the House Judiciary Committee began approving three articles of impeachment against him, charging obstruction of justice as well as abuse of power and withholding evidence.

Watergate comparison criticized
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said punishing the president, rather than making sure the FISA law has provisions to check Bush’s power, is counterproductive. And he said the comparison to Watergate is “apples and oranges” because Nixon’s actions were more about saving himself and his presidency than national security.

“Censure is destructive,” Graham said. “Censure breaks us apart at a time when we need to be brought together.”

The only president ever censured by the Senate was Andrew Jackson, in 1834, for removing the nation’s money from a private bank in defiance of the Whig-controlled Senate.

The censure resolution has attracted only two co-sponsors, Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barbara Boxer of California. The Senate’s other 41 Democrats have distanced themselves, many saying they want to first see the results of a Senate Intelligence Committee investigation of the matter.

Privately, Democrats in the House and Senate have said that embracing a censure resolution before the facts are known would damage their credibility this election year.

For his part, Feingold has accused those Democrats who have not embraced his proposal of cowering.

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