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FISA Fight Focuses on Trial Lawyers

Recess week has generally been quiet so far on Capitol Hill, except for the sound of press releases still whizzing back and forth on this past weekend's expiration of the terrorist surveillance law.

While the releases have been hitting familiar notes -- Republicans say Democrats are putting our security in jeapardy, Democrats say Republicans are lying and trafficking in fear -- the GOP has stepped up its attacks on a familiar class of bogeyman: trial lawyers.

The primary stumbling block to an agreement between the two parties on an update of the law in question, the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, has been the issue of whether to grant retroactive immunity to telecommunications firms for assisting the government in surveillance operations. Republicans are in favor of immunity, saying it is needed to ensure the telecoms will cooperate with the government in the future. Democrats have been opposed, arguing that companies that may have broken the law by providing information without a warrant should not be protected.

In recent days. Republicans have focused more on what they allege is the real reason Democrats oppose immunity -- the opposition of trial lawyers, who the GOP says want to push massive class action suits against the telecom companies.

White House spokeswoman Dana Perino made this case last week on Fox News Channel, saying, "The House Democrats are basically doing the bidding of the trial lawyers, who are licking their chops, hoping that they could get a piece of a big class-action lawsuit against these telecommunications companies, which did their patriotic duty to help America in the immediacy following 9/11 when we weren't sure if there would be another attack."

Texas Sen. John Cornyn (R) made the same allegation on the Senate floor last Thursday. So does this press release from House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) and this one from the National Republican Congressional Committee.

The conservative press has also weighed in. The New York Post published an editorial titled, "LAWYERS FIDDLE, AMERICA BURNS." And columnist Robert Novak wrote this week that "The nation's torts bar, vigorously pursuing such suits [against telecom companies], has spent months lobbying hard against immunity."

Conservatives and lobbyists for the business community have worked to demonize trial lawyers for years. The best-known D.C. lobbying group for the trial bar actually changed its name in 2006 from the Association of Trial Lawyers of America to the American Association for Justice (though its Web address is still atla.org).

And the AAJ is pushing against the recent spate of charges on the surveillance law. The group put out a release this week specifically responding to Novak's column, saying, "the trial bar did not lobby on the wiretapping bill or request support of either side. Mr. Novak's lack of fact checking cheapens the debate over our national security. The debate over surveillance law should be centered on finding the balance between civil liberties and our nation's national security."

Democrats say the GOP is simply trying to change the subject away from what they say is their real aim in blocking immunity -- protecting civil liberties -- and away from the Bush administration possibly having to disclose in court that it encouraged phone companies to break the law.

Either way, the surveillance bill's expiration isn't getting much media play this week, as the presidential campaign continues to push other Washington stories off of news budgets. Negotiations -- and fighting -- over a permanent surveillance bill fix will resume next week in earnest when Congress returns, and Republicans can shift back to focusing their attacks on Democratic leaders instead of trial lawyers.

By Ben Pershing  |  February 20, 2008; 3:24 PM ET
Categories:  Agenda  
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Comments

"the trial bar did not lobby on the wiretapping bill or request support of either side. Mr. Novak's lack of fact checking cheapens the debate over our national security."

Since when is a right-wing hit piece supposed to have any basis in fact? Novak's column was fairly typical of the conservative chorus- light on truth and heavy on innuendo.

Posted by: ancient_mariner | February 20, 2008 5:54 PM | Report abuse

Trial lawyers are the only thing standing between us and BIG BROTHER.

Posted by: mpodrecca | February 21, 2008 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Robert Novak thinks trial lawyers are threatening Americas security. What are they doing, outing CIA agents or something?
Who cares what the conservative chorus is singing at the moment? They were the the ones singing Hossanas for our idiot in chief for the last seven years. If they even had the faintest connection to reality, would they have been doing something like that?

Posted by: Dijetlo | February 21, 2008 6:38 PM | Report abuse

Only a good Nazi has nothing to fear.

Posted by: crafter48@netscape.com | February 22, 2008 10:19 AM | Report abuse

When the facts are with you argue on the facts, when the facts are against you and the law is with you or unclear argue on the law and when neither the facts nor the law are on your side, pound the table and change the subject.

The Bush WH and the GOP noise machine are masters of the third option.

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