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Feingold Strikes, Frist Fires Back

Fresh off a win in the Southern Republican Leadership Conference straw poll, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) is ready to knock down Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wisc.) over the latter's call on Monday to censure President Bush over a controversial domestic surveillance program authorized in the wake of Sept. 11.

As the Post's Charles Babington writes today, Frist sought to bring Feingold's resolution to a vote immediately ("hoping to put Feingold's colleagues in a tough spot," as Babington put it in his piece). But Democrats blocked a roll call vote by utilizing procedural tactics.

As Senate Democrats mull their next move, Frist sent an appeal out to his Volunteer PAC e-mail list Monday night condemning Feingold's actions. "Senator Feingold is flat wrong and irresponsible," wrote Frist, adding that the Democrats' unwillingness to immediately vote on the resolution proves that it is nothing more than a "shameful political stunt."

Frist goes on to describe a scenario whereby a "radical Islamic terrorist" in the United States receives a call from an "overseas counterpart" to plan an attack on Nashville (Frist's hometown) or even Madison, the capital of Feingold's home state. "If Russ Feingold had his way, U.S. authorities would do this with the intercepted phone call: hang up," Frist writes.

The Tennessee senator urges supporters to post a message on his VOLPAC blog to "show your support for President Bush." The post drew more than 150 comments in its first four hours, with roughly 80 percent supporting the position of Bush and Frist. (More than 500 people had posted as of 8 a.m. ET Tuesday morning.)

Sen. Russ Feingold
Sen. Feingold took to the floor Monday to propose censuring President Bush over the domestic surveillance program. (C-SPAN2 via AP)

At issue is the warrantless wiretapping of American citizens by the National Security Agency authorized by Bush in 2002. The president acknowledged the existence of the program following a New York Times report on it in December but defended its necessity for fighting the war on terror.

Most Democrats (and even some Republicans) held a different view, arguing that the president had (at best) bent the law or (at worst) committed a criminal infraction by not seeking warrants for these activities. That argument was perhaps made best by former Vice President Al Gore in a January speech in which Gore accused Bush of breaking the law "repeatedly and insistently" and called for a special counsel to investigate the surveillance program. The speech, not surprisingly, won plaudits from the liberal left and protestations from the conservative right.

In the intervening months, some establishment Democrats have reined in their rhetoric on the eavesdropping program -- arguing privately that most Americans see the issue as a national security question and, as a result, are more likely to side with the president.

After the Senate Intelligence Committee voted along partisan lines last month to table a Democratic proposal to investigate the program, however, Feingold sprung into action. Speaking from the Senate floor Monday, Feingold said that "when the president of the United States breaks the law, he must be held accountable," adding that Bush's actions are far worse than those which led to the impeachment of President Bill Clinton in 1998. Feingold stopped short of calling for impeachment proceedings against Bush.

The positions staked out by Frist and Feingold are likely political winners for the two men -- each of whom is considering a White House run in 2008. Frist's hard line stance against Feingold (and in support of Bush) is sure to win him plaudits among the party's conservative base -- a key voting bloc in early presidential primary and caucus states.

Feingold's call for condemnation of the president should have a similar effect on his candidacy among liberals who have long contended that Bush should be impeached for his role in the NSA program. The censure resolution is simply the latest move by Feingold aimed at courting the party's ideological left. Feingold was the first Democratic senator to propose a specific timeline for troop withdrawals from Iraq, and he led the fight against the reauthorization of the Patriot Act. He was also the only one of the five Democratic Senators (or former senators) considering the 2008 race to vote against the use of force resolution against Iraq in 2002.

The unanswered question is whether establishment Democrats -- led by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) -- will back Feingold's position or leave him swinging in the political winds. And if they take the latter option, how does the party's left react?

By Chris Cillizza  |  March 14, 2006; 8:35 AM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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