House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) was a leading voice in the negotiations that led to the controversial wiretapping proposal unveiled by Congress yesterday, and for that reason he’s been quoted all over the news media defending the bill. (As we reported this morning, the legislation effectively lets the telecoms off the hook for their warrantless cooperation in the program — a provision roundly criticized by civil libertarians.)
But to be fair to Hoyer, he was in a tough spot. Moderate House Democrats, fearing the fallout in their districts in November, were pressuring party leaders to do something on FISA. Inaction, on the campaign trail, would have been painted as putting the country at risk, and the White House wasn’t going to sign anything that didn’t contain immunity. The moderates, Hoyer said, were threatening to support a Senate-passed FISA bill that offered blanket immunity to the telecoms without any role of the district courts.
Asked by a reporter Wednesday why Democrats didn’t choose to punt the issue to next year, Hoyer responded:
In a world of alternatives, that sounds like an alternative that might be feasible. That assumes that you don’t have the votes for the Senate bill on the House floor if it came to the floor. I think that, clearly, enough Democrats have indicated that if the Senate bill were on the floor, they would vote for it — that it would have the majority of votes on the House floor if it came to the floor.
So frankly, you’re dealing in a world of alternatives. In my opinion, the alternatives are the Senate bill or something very substantially better than the Senate bill, which is what we’re trying to work for.
Asked if it was inevitable that the Senate bill would come to the floor without a House alternative, he said:
I think that there are many Democrats on our side of the aisle who have indicated to me that they are prepared to wait as long as we are working on an alternative. But if there were no alternative in sight, they believe that they would have to vote for the Senate bill.
The saga is testimony to the power of the 30-second ad spot (or fear of it) to dictate federal policy. Because even if Democrats allowed the first warrantless surveillance orders to expire in August, the administration would retain its ability to wiretap through FISA (it would just have to go through the FISA court to do so). That might force more paperwork on the White House, legal experts say, but it would do nothing to make the country less safe from terrorist attack.
As Scott Silliman, of Duke Law School, said yesterday: “It would be more burdensome, but I can’t tell you that it puts the country at risk. Because it doesn’t.”
God bless television and A.D.D.
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