Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid cleared a key hurdle for the FISA Amendments Act on Thursday, advancing President Bush's preferred version of the spying bill, a move opposed by the majority of Reid's Democratic colleagues. The vote, 60-36, sets the Senate on a course to validate more warrantless spying by the Bush administration and provide retroactive amnesty to telephone companies accused of breaking surveillance laws -- an unpopular approach.
The ACLU, which has collaborated with a network of constitutional activists and bloggers to oppose the administration's surveillance policies, condemned the Democratic leadership in unusually tough language after the vote. "Under Democratic leadership, the Senate will now continue its debate on surveillance with a bill that resembles something from the administration's playbook. Six months after being hoodwinked into passing the Protect America Act, Americans are still waiting for Congress to grow a spine," read an official statement released Thursday afternoon.
Glenn Greenwald, an attorney who has written extensively about surveillance issues as an author and blogger, blasted the Democrats' caving on the surveillance bill as part of a broader pattern. "Democrats have failed repeatedly to end or even limit one of the most unpopular wars in American history. They have failed to restore habeas corpus. They have failed to fulfill their promise of 'fixing' the hastily-passed Protect America Act," he wrote at Salon. "They don't feel the slightest bit ashamed or remorseful about any of that," he added.
The Senate floor battle also reflected that Democrats remain divided over whether to confront the Bush administration over constitutional rights. Judiciary Chairman Pat Leahy's alternative bill, which would keep telephone companies accountable for potentially illegal or unconstitutional acts, drew the majority of Democratic Senators, including strong backing from Senators Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd. But Reid arranged floor votes to favor the Bush-Cheney version, introduced by Intelligence Chairman Jay Rockefeller, and announced that he would force Democratic opponents to openly filibuster it -- a hardball demand he has rarely made against Republican filibusters.
The fight is far from over. The Senate is considering several more amendments to the underlying bill, and it must reconcile the legislation with a House version that does not include retroactive amnesty. But with opponents like these, President Bush may have forgotten that Congress ever changed hands.
Update: The vote tally is here.
Matt Browner-Hamlin, a former blogger for Chris Dodd, works as an organizer for Credo Mobile on the FISA fight, and he emailed The Nation with this observation about the presidential candidates:
Senators Clinton and Obama rushed off the campaign trail to vote on the Farm Bill in November, ahead of the Iowa caucus. But with the Constitution on the line today for the second time in little more than a month, they both did absolutely nothing. No Democrat will mistake their inaction for leadership.
And Digby has more.