Four years ago, U.S. Senator Russ Feingold distinguished himself as the Senate's premier defender of the Constitution, when he cast the chamber's sole vote against enactment of the Patriot Act. As a time when every other senator – even liberal Democrats with long records of championing the Bill of Rights -- joined the post-September 11 rush to curtail basic liberties, Feingold stood alone in defense of the principle that it was possible to combat terrorism and protect the rights of Americans.
But Feingold no longer stands alone. On Friday, he led a bipartisan group of senators that successfully blocked the administration's concerted effort to renew the Patriot Act in a form that maintains its most abusive components. A move by Republican leaders of the Senate to prevent Feingold from mounting a filibuster fell seven votes short of the number needed.A remarkable 47 senators – including Democrats and Republicans – backed the Wisconsin Democrat's stance. That's far more than the 40 needed to prevent a filibuster, and it means that Feingold now heads a coalition that should be able to force significant changes in the Patriot Act before the December 31 deadline for its renewal.
The Senate coalition that the maverick senator has assembled is made up of members from across the political spectrum – from Massachusetts Democrat Ted Kennedy, the dean of Senate liberals, to Idaho Republican Larry Craig, one of the chamber's most right-wing members – who have joined Feingold in calling for reform of the Patriot Act.
This coalition did not just form overnight.
It is the result of four years of hard work by Feingold and others who recognized that the fight to fix the Patriot Act would have to be a long-term struggle.
Some members of Congress were swayed by Feingold's constant pressure on Patriot Act issues, and by the fact that the senator was easily reelected in 2004 after a campaign in which he highlighted his opposition to the measure and his concern for the Constitution.
Others were influenced by the diligent efforts of U.S. Representative Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, and his allies in organizations of librarians and independent booksellers, who campaigned for three years to alert Americans to the fact that the Patriot Act allowed federal agents to collect information on the reading habits of law-abiding citizens.
Others, still, were convinced by the success that the Bill of Rights Defense Committee had in getting seven states and close to 400 communities across the country to go on record expressing concern about the damage done by the Patriot Act to Constitutional protections against illegal searches and other abuses.
"It's an example of public pressure reaching through to their elected representatives," Feingold said of the grassroots campaign to reform the Patriot Act. "It's a unique chapter in the history of civil liberties in this country."
So popular did the movement become that this week, with the December 31 deadline for reauthorizing the Patriot Act looming, the Bush administration and its Congressional allies were forced to use a backdoor maneuver to thwart reforms that had been unanimously agreed to by the Senate. A conference committee report that was supposed to reconcile the Senate and House versions of the reauthorization measure instead was turned into a vehicle to maintain the most controversial and unpopular components of the Act.
The White House and its Congressional allies thought they could secure reauthorization of the act in a form that allowed the Justice Department and other federal agencies to continue running roughshod over the Bill of Rights by bringing the measure up on the eve of the Holiday recess and then spinning up the usual hyperventilated talk about how it is necessary to crush the Constitution in order to keep the American people safe.
The maneuver worked in the House, where the report was approved Wednesday by a 251-174 vote. (The administration won that vote only because 44 Democrats, including Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, D-Maryland, Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee chair Rahm Emanuel and Ben Cardin, a candidate for Maryland's open Senate seat in 2006 – voted with the vast majority of House Republicans for a measure that the American Civil Liberties Union condemned as lacking "needed safeguards to protect the privacy and constitutional freedoms of innocent Americans.")
But, even as the House fell in line with the administration's scheme, Feingold refused to back down. He met the White House onslaught with a promise to do everything in his power to block reauthorization of the act in a form that does not sufficiently address concerns about federal agencies entering the homes of citizens of innocent Americans, reviewing library and medical records as part of "fishing expeditions" and secretly subpoenaing information without following standard legal procedures.
Going into Friday's fight in the Senate, Feingold assembled an unlikely coalition of liberal Democrats and libertarian Republicans to press his case against reauthorization in the manner demanded by the administration. The coalition came together around the premise that freedom need not be sacrificed in order to maintain security.
While he had allies this time, it was still Feingold who took the lead – and who took the heat.
When Attorney General Alberto Gonzales lobbied the Senate on behalf of the conference report, claiming that the version under consideration was respectful of civil liberties and pleading with senators to "trust" the administration to do the right thing, Feingold took to the floor of the Senate with a blistering response.
"Trust of government cannot be demanded, or asserted, or assumed, it must be earned," the senator said. "And this government has not earned our trust. It has fought reasonable safeguards for constitutional freedoms every step of the way. It has resisted congressional oversight and often misled the public about its use of the Patriot Act. And now the Attorney General is arguing that the conference report is adequate ‘protection for civil liberties for all Americans.' It isn't."
In the end, every Democratic senator except South Dakota's Tim Johnson and Nebraska's Ben Nelson (who voted with the Republicans), and Connecticut's Chris Dodd (who did not vote) sided with Feingold. So, too, did Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords and four conservative Republicans: Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, Idaho's Craig, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and New Hampshire's John Sununu. (Republican Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, an ally of the administration, also voted against cloture in order to maintain his ability to reopen the issue.)
The failure of the Senate to block Feingold's filibuster threat does not doom the Patriot Act. The likelihood is that it will be renewed in some form. But the version that is eventually approved should be significantly more respectful of the Bill of Rights than the version the administration wanted.
That's all that Russ Feingold has been asking for since he began his lonely challenge to the Patriot Act back in 2001. The only difference is that, now, Feingold's voice is part of a bipartisan chorus that is demanding that Constitutional rights be defended by the members of Congress who have sworn to uphold that document.
As Feingold said Friday, "Today's vote proves that this is not a partisan issue. This is an American issue and a constitutional issue. Now is the time to come together to give the government the tools it needs to fight terrorism and protect the rights and freedoms of innocent citizens."