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Move to censure Bush will have political fallout

A short, but sharp partisan skirmish broke out on the Senate floor Monday when Majority Leader Bill Frist tried to schedule a vote for Monday night or Tuesday on Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold’s resolution to censure President Bush.
Senate Leaders Hold Hearing On Lobbying Reform
Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wisc., introduced a measure in the Senate to censure President Bush over the domestic eavesdropping program.Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images
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A short, but sharp partisan skirmish broke out on the Senate floor Monday when Majority Leader Bill Frist tried to schedule a vote for Monday night or Tuesday on Wisconsin Democrat Sen. Russ Feingold’s resolution to censure President Bush.

Frist said Democratic senators ought to be on the record voting for or against the Feingold resolution.

“If the Democratic Party is going to be attacking the president in a time of war, then we are ready to vote and let’s see what the Democratic Party says,” Frist told reporters right after the floor skirmish. 

“I don’t know where the Democratic leadership is right now,” he said, but if they support censuring Bush “then I want them to all be on the record.”

But Democratic leaders objected to a roll call vote and it was postponed indefinitely.

Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md, who was leading the Democrats on the floor at the moment Frist made his motion for a vote, said that Frist hadn’t consulted with Democratic Leader Sen. Harry Reid beforehand to give him advance warning of what he was about to do. But a Frist aide said the majority leader had informed Senate Democrats of his intent to seek an immediate censure vote.

Putting Democrats on the spot
If Frist had succeeded in bringing Feingold’s resolution up for a floor vote, it would have put on the spot Democrats who are thinking of running for president in 2008, such as Sens. Hillary Clinton, Evan Bayh, Joe Biden, and John Kerry.

Feingold himself is a potential 2008 Democratic presidential contender.

Frist’s comments seemed to make clear that Republicans think Feingold has handed them an attractive political opportunity and that a vote would divide their opponents.

Feingold’s resolution would censure Bush for ordering surveillance by the National Security Agency (NSA) to listen in on conversations of al Qaida suspects outside the United States with persons inside the United States.

“This is a political stunt,” Frist said of Feingold’s resolution, after he walked on the Senate floor just before Feingold was about to speak.

“It is addressed at attacking the president of the United States when we’re at war, when the president is leading us with a program that is lawful, is constitutional, that is vital to the safety and security of the American people.”

A few hours before the floor skirmish Reid told reporters he hadn’t had a chance to read Feingold’s resolution but said, “I commend Sen. Feingold for bringing this to the attention of the American people. We need a full and complete debate on this NSA spying.”

Lieberman voices misgivings
But Sen. Joe Lieberman, D- Conn., voiced some misgivings and hinted that he’d vote no on the Feingold resolution.

“Frankly I’d prefer to spend our time on figuring out ways to bring this very important program of surveillance of potential terrorists here in the United States under the law…. I disagree with the Bush administration’s legal judgment on this one…. But this is a critically important program to the prevention of terrorist acts here in the United States.”

Feingold’s resolution may be getting a warmer reception from grass-roots Democrats than it is from Reid and Lieberman.

In Iowa, Democratic congressional candidate David Loebsack said he supported Feingold’s resolution.

“In my district, there is considerable discontent with the Bush administration on almost all fronts, including the Iraq war, the NSA surveillance, and many other issues,” Loebsack. “When the NSA story broke, many were appalled that Bush would do what he did.  There is a clear consensus here that he broke the law and that there has to be an accounting for what he did.”

Censure is not impeachment
Feingold’s resolution would not have any legal effect. Unlike an impeachment resolution, which can only be introduced in the House of Representatives, a censure resolution, if passed, would not force the Senate to conduct a trial, as it did of President Clinton in 1999, and President Andrew Johnson in 1868.

Feingold’s measure accuses Bush of knowingly breaking the law by ordering the surveillance, an argument Attorney General Alberto Gonzales rejects, citing Article II of the Constitution, which gives the president powers as commander-in-chief.

Feingold’s resolution does not fully satisfy the Bush adversaries — none of them serving in Congress — who are calling for Bush’s impeachment.

“It’s a good step in the right direction,” said David Swanson, a leader of anti-Bush coalition called After Downing Street.

But “more than censure is called for. The president has openly admitted breaking the law; the president needs to be impeached,” Swanson said.

Swanson is one of the organizers of a political action committee called Impeach Pac which is supporting three Democratic House candidates, Chris Owens in New York, Tony Trupiano in Michigan and Jeeni Criscenzo in California. Each has committed to supporting impeachment of Bush.

Pro-impeachment House candidates
Trupiano and Criscenzo face long odds in their races. The nonpartisan Cook Political report rates the Michigan seat Trupiano is seeking  now held by two-term Republican Thaddeus McCotter -- as “Solid Republican,” the same rating it applies to the California district where Criscenzo seeks to oust three-term Republican Darrel Issa.

In New York’s 11th congressional district, when Owens is trying to succeed his father, Rep. Major Owens, he faces a competitive primary.

Impeach Pac has so far raised about $60,000, which makes it tiny for a PAC. The biggest spending PAC so far in the 2005-2006 election cycle is the National Association of Realtors, which has contributed $1.4 million to House and Senate candidates.

Swanson is critical of House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi and Whip Steny Hoyer for not supporting impeachment. He referred to Pelosi and Hoyer as “the so-called leadership.”

A winning strategy?
Swanson contended that Democrats who run on an impeach-Bush platform are more likely to win, asking, “Why not pick something our base is passionate about?”

Swanson also argued that Democrats must commit themselves before the November congressional elections to impeachment. “Say we elect a Democratic majority to the House, but Democrats didn’t campaign on this (impeachment) issue. If they win, they aren’t likely to take it up after the election,” he said.

Feingold’s isn’t the first censure-Bush measure in Congress. Last year Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., offered a resolution to censure Bush for “failing to respond to requests for information concerning allegations that he and others in his Administration misled Congress and the American people regarding the decision to go to war in Iraq” and “failing to adequately account for specific misstatements he made regarding the war.”

Conyers has also offered a resolution calling for creation of a House committee to “make recommendations regarding grounds for possible impeachment.”

Conyers has 15 House co-sponsors, all Democrats, for his censure resolution and 29 co-sponsors, all Democrats, for his impeachment committee measure.