Two Cheers For Senator Reid
Okay, maybe it's only one cheer.
A provisional cheer at that, although I'm inclined to make that two provisional cheers.
What I'd like to suggest, no doubt to the consternation of most readers, is that Reid's decision to pull the FISA bill Monday evening was pretty much what Reid had in mind the whole time.
What I'm sure of is that the many comments I've read that characterize what happened on the Senate floor on Monday as Reid having been forced to pull the bill by Chris Dodd's threat of a filibuster simply don't match what I saw, via C-Span's live streaming.
Before I proceed, let me make clear that I wish to take nothing from Chris Dodd's role here. He deserves all of the praise he's getting and then some.
His speeches on the Senate floor were magisterial. I've been watching him for more years than most of you and I have never seen him so compelling. And yes, it counts that he left his campaign in Idaho to come back and lead the opposition to a version of the Senate bill that was inadequate to the task of restoring the good sense, the respect for civil liberties and constitutional government, that had fueled the passage of the first FISA legislation in the late 1970s.
As Dodd graciously acknowledges in the video Lambert has posted here, many Democrats contributed to the sense I had, watching the debate on Monday, that I was not looking at a dispirited, disunited, frightened caucus, without a clue about how to oppose the policy of obdurate obstructionism employed so successfully in the past six months by the Bush administration and its enablers in the Republican Senate caucus.
Democrats were on the attack, making compelling, easy-to-understand arguments that have wide-spread appeal among a majority of Americans, and they were ready and able to shoot down the lies and prevarications employed by key Republicans, like Orrin Hatch. Most important, the list of Democratic contributors to this success was long and varied, and included Harry Reid.
Even Dianne Feinstein helped to throw a nice sized ringer into the Republican's well-oiled talking points.
Her early speech avowing that her own vote for any version of a a bill that would restore FISA while bringing it up to date without gutting it, would depend on the passage of an amendment which included a clear statement of FISA's exclusive role as the arbitrator of any President's ability to order surveillance of any Americans, at home and abroad, which is a central achievement of the House version of the bill, as well as an amendment which handed over the question of immunity for Telecoms to the FISA court itself, had the effect of breaking the consensus the Republicans had clearly planned to ride to an early victory on the Intelligence Committee version of the bill. And Republicans knew it. You could tell because of how mad it made them.
Senator Whitehouse's strong early speech had the same effect of shattering the illusory consensus that put key Democrats on the Republican side, since he was one of those who voted out the version of the Intelligence Committee bill which included Telecom immunity. And it didn't hurt that Rockefeller was present at Feinstein's side as a co-sponsor of her two amendments.
Ron Wyden, who had played a key role in reporting out the Judiciary Committee version of the bill excluding that same immunity, gave an important speech in which he pointed out, loudly, clearly, and passionately, that almost no Senators who would be voting on immunity had been allowed to view the actual paper record of what transpired between the Bush administration and these giant corporations, who, to hear the Republicans tell it, were just doing their patriotic duty when asked by their government to lend a hand in the WOT, with no way of judging whether or not they were breaking any laws, without, apparently, access to the squads of corporate lawyers they emply, forced, instead, to depend on what; volunteer law students or some civil version of public defenders?
Apparently, Wyden was one of the few Senators who have looked at this paper trail, and without spelling out specifics, this is all "classified" material, he assured his fellow Senators that reading them would make it clear that the Telecoms should have known better.
As the debate proceeded, Democrats pressed on this issue of allowing Senators to view the evidence of what transpired between White House, the Justice Department and the Telecoms, and Reid has now made it an official demand.
Through all of this, Harry Reid presided with aplomb. He hovered above the fray, aligning himself verbally with those who don't wish to extend immunity to Telecoms, but framing the proceedings as a genuine debate on a complicated set of issues, which required there be time to provide possible compromises to take place among the varied opinions on the Democratic side, as well as to give equal treatment to the more unified Republican side.
Republicans stayed unified, but the richness of arguments being presented by Democrats caused them to start considering amendments, and threatening their own possible filibusters.
My take, Reid set the stage, and Democrats pushed hard, to the point the even Republicans couldn't do much but grumble when Reid made the decision that there simply was no time to get work on the bill done in time for Christmas recess, not with the Omnibus spending bill coming up the next day, which Reid had announced at the start of the day.
Reid's decision to pull the bill has been characterized as a sudden one, but if you were watching the day-long debate, it seemed more inevitable than sudden.
Of course this is a temporary victory.
The bill will be taken up in January, and the Protect America Act passed in August expires on February 1st. It seems that Reid is working to gain more time by extending the original bill for another month, but interestingly, the Republicans are against that.
Many of you may be asking, why not simply honor Dodd's original "hold" on the legislation, rather than bringing it up, and why make the Intelligence Committee bill the base bill? Reid's answer was that in his view, given the Senate dynamics on this issue, his way was the best way to achieve the results most Democrats wanted, to restore the FISA court without offering immunity to the Telecoms.
I think he may have been right, and that he it is quite possible that he was not motivated by a desire to push through the Intelligence Committee bill. Please note that the Republicans now have nothing to complain about. Yes, of course, that won't stop them from complaining, but their outrage was already beginning to sound strained on the Senate floor.
Reid gained time, he honored the various views among Democrats, which required intra-party negotiations, and the entire caucus seemed to take a noticeable step toward the kind of FISA bill most bloggers want to see enacted.
I'm taking nothing from the role of bloggers here. We played an important part, not least by getting people to call Reid, and other Senators. And Reid was able to use the fact of receiving so many calls in his justifications for pulling the bill.
What I didn't see is any indication that Senator Reid had a hidden agenda of giving into the administration, or providing cover for Telecoms.
I'm not claiming for sure that what I saw is the truth. But there is a clear and simple way we'll know the truth. If the final FISA bill provides sufficient protection for Americans' civil liberties, and it does not contain any form of blanket immunity for telecoms, then I think some of us should consider the possibility that Harry Reid knew what he was doing.
On the other side of the scale, nothing less than that outcome will justify our beleaguered Senate Majority Leader, and the thought did occur that Chris Dodd might just be a majority leader for the ages.