The Blogs Are Alive With the Sound of Angry Democrats
By CARL HULSE
Published: August 9, 2007
WASHINGTON, Aug. 8 — Progressive and liberal groups and left-leaning blogs are furious, tossing around fighting words like “spineless,” “craven” and “weak.”
So much for the hopes of Democratic leaders that they could avoid a withering political attack by clearing the way for Congress to approve an expansion of the Bush administration’s terrorist surveillance program before the August recess.
“Democratic leaders in Congress didn’t put up much of a fight and they didn’t stand up and say ‘no’ to Bush,” said an e-mail message that political operatives for the group MoveOn sent Tuesday to the organization’s members, urging them to sign an online petition calling on Congress to reverse the new law.
Activist groups were somewhat forgiving earlier this year when Democrats backed down in a fight with President Bush over war spending, but the concession on changes to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act seems to have touched a nerve.
From the perspective of liberal critics, Democrats again let themselves be hoodwinked into handing Mr. Bush substantial new power on the basis of White House warnings of an imminent threat. And they did so when Mr. Bush’s poll numbers are low.
“Ultimately, it was the Democratic leadership on the Hill that rolled over to this demand,” said Caroline Fredrickson, a top lobbyist for the American Civil Liberties Union. “Instead of standing strong and standing on principle, they panicked and gave the administration not only what it has been asking for, but more.”
Democratic officials in the House and the Senate say they understand the dismay that greeted the measure’s passage and point out that most Democrats opposed the bill, including the four senators seeking the party’s presidential nomination. But they say that given classified security briefings and the approach of the recess, Democrats had little choice.
“Everyone who heard the briefings from the administration agreed that the intelligence community did not have what it needed,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader. “Both Democrats and Republicans alike agreed that going home without addressing this issue was not an option.”
And once the Senate left town after approving the Republican proposal making it possible to institute wiretaps without warrants, House members found themselves in the position of either acting or being the last roadblock to the changes sought by the White House.
“We agreed with the administration that there was a problem with FISA that needed to be fixed,” said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California. “We thought we had a bill that protected civil liberties and addressed their problems, but it did not have the votes on its own.”
Still, many House Democrats argued Saturday both in private party meetings and again on the floor that Democrats should either prevent a vote on the Republican proposal or join together to defeat it no matter the political cost. They believed the measure went too far in handing surveillance power to the administration, particularly Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales, without sufficient judicial review.
“We should have stood our ground,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York. “We had a bill that did everything they said was necessary for national security. I think we could defend that.”
Progressive bloggers agreed. “Cowards,” said the headline on a post Tuesday on the Daily Kos Web site, which listed the 41 House Democrats and 16 Senate Democrats who sided with the White House and Republicans.
As they dealt with the political fallout, Democrats noted that Congressional aides were already drafting a revision of the bill, which expires in six months. But they also acknowledged that reaching agreement on changes would not be easy.
The A.C.L.U. wants to make sure that Congress and the country have all the information they need for the renewed debate. On Wednesday, the group filed an unusual request with the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, which operates in near-total secrecy, asking it to make public its recent opinions on the scope of the government’s ability to wiretap Americans.
The executive director of the A.C.L.U., Anthony D. Romero, said, “Unless the FISA court discloses the documents leading up to the recent law and shedding light on the government’s claimed surveillance authority, an informed and meaningful debate — the cornerstone of our democracy — cannot occur.”
Democrats and political analysts said they expected the long-term political consequences of last week’s votes to be minimal because most of those who are irate would not be inclined to back Republicans.
“At the end of the day, how many choices do they have?” asked Stuart Rothenberg, a nonpartisan political analyst, about liberal voters. “How many Democratic primaries are going to be determined by this? Base voters have a way of complaining, being angry, of holding their breath until they turn blue. But I don’t see it as having any real consequence.”
Others say frustration with the party over issues like the surveillance vote is at the heart of the dismal poll ratings for Congress.
Some are already talking about primary challenges for Democrats whom they consider enablers of Mr. Bush, like moderate Blue Dogs who formed the core of Democratic support for the eavesdropping proposal in the House. On the Web site Open Left, the blogger Matt Stoller accused the Blue Dogs of one of their “standard betrayals.”
“The upside,” Mr. Stoller wrote, “is that organizing is beginning already around fixing the FISA legislation, and a campaign to destroy the brand of the Blue Dogs is not far away.”
Eric Lichtblau contributed reporting.