Censure arguments heard

Senate panel weighs move aimed at Bush


WASHINGTON -- The Senate heard the first detailed arguments on the merits of formally censuring President Bush during a frequently testy committee hearing yesterday that highlighted Republican opposition and Democratic ambivalence toward the idea.

Five legal experts appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the resolution that Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, introduced to censure Bush for authorizing a spying program by the National Security Agency that operates without court warrants.

John W. Dean, White House counsel for President Richard M. Nixon, testified in favor of the resolution. Dean, a key figure in the Watergate scandal, which toppled Nixon's presidency, said Bush's assertions of expansive executive power in waging the war on terror represented an "even more serious" threat to the Constitution than the misdeeds by Nixon and his aides.

"Had a censure resolution been issued about some of Nixon's conduct long before it erupted to the degree ... that came, it would have been a godsend," Dean said.

Other witnesses disputed the notion that censuring Bush was justified. And, as expected, the five Republican senators at the hearing condemned the Feingold resolution.

"I can only hope that this constitutionally suspect and, I believe, inflammatory attempt to punish the president for leading this war on terror will not weaken his ability to do so," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, a Utah Republican.

Sen. Arlen Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican, the committee chairman, said he saw "no merit" in the resolution.

Feingold said the Senate needs to send Bush a strong signal that it rejects his claims of authority to act without congressional approval on surveillance and other issues, such as the treatment of war prisoners.

"What we have here ... is one of the greatest attempts to dismantle our system of government that we have seen in the history of our country," Feingold said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be talking about censure."

After the hearing, Specter suggested that Feingold's proposal would receive a committee vote. "It will be before the committee in due course," he said.

Many Republicans say that bringing the resolution to a vote would embarrass and divide Democrats. The Republican National Committee posted a video on its Web site yesterday implying that censure is the first step in a Democratic plan to impeach Bush if the party regains control of Congress.

At the hearing, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking Democrat, embraced Feingold's call to censure Bush, saying that he has "no hesitation in condemning the president for secretly and systematically violating the laws of the United States of America."

Besides Leahy and Feingold, the only other committee Democrat who attended was Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin.

Democrats skipping the session included Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. Five of the panel's GOP members also were absent.

Feingold's resolution has been championed by an array of left-leaning blogs and the online liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org. It has attracted two co-sponsors, Sens. Tom Harkin, an Iowa Democrat, and Barbara Boxer, a California Democrat.

Most of yesterday's testimony focused on whether Bush broke the law after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks by authorizing, without the warrants required under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, the surveillance of international telephone and e-mail communications by people in the United States with suspected links to terrorists.

Dean, author of a book critical of Bush, Worse than Watergate, and Bruce Fein, a former attorney in the Reagan administration, argued that the surveillance violated the FISA statute.

Disagreeing were Robert F. Turner, associate director of the University of Virginia's Center for National Security Law; Lee Casey, another former Reagan administration attorney; and John Schmidt, an associate attorney general under President Bill Clinton.

They contended that the spying was justified by the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force against terrorists after Sept. 11 or his powers as commander in chief.

Ronald Brownstein writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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