WASHINGTON — Shortly before noon last Saturday, about 20 House Democrats huddled in Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s office to decide what to do about a surveillance bill that had been dumped on them by the Senate before it left town.

Many of the Democrats were furious. They believed they had negotiated in good faith with Mike McConnell, the director of national intelligence. They sought to give the Bush administration the authority it needed to intercept communications involving foreign nationals in terrorism investigations while preserving some oversight.

But the administration held out for granting McConnell and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales more power while seriously circumscribing the role of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court. The Senate’s Democratic leadership, lacking the votes to pass a measure more to the House’s liking, gave the administration what it wanted.

At one point, according to participants in the meeting, the passionate discussion veered toward the idea of standing up to the administration — even at the risk of handing President Bush a chance to bash Democrats on “national security,” as is his wont.

Several members from swing districts — including Reps. Heath Shuler of North Carolina and Patrick Murphy of Pennsylvania — expressed openness to having Congress stay in town to fight if important constitutional issues were at stake.

But the moment passed. Even some very liberal Democrats worried about the political costs of blocking action before the summer recess. That Saturday night, the House sent the president a bill that, as a disgusted Rep. David Wu, D-Ore., put it, with a touch of exaggeration, “makes Alberto Gonzalez the sheriff, the judge and the jury.”

Most Democrats opposed the bill, but 41 (including Shuler) voted “yes,” allowing it to pass. (Murphy remained passionately opposed.)

The one Democratic victory: The legislation expires in six months, meaning the debate will resume this fall. But Rep. John Tierney, D-Mass., warned his colleagues that “when you give up your rights under the Constitution, it is not likely you are going to regain them.”

The episode was the culmination of a shameful era in which serious issues related to national security and civil liberties were debated in a climate of fear and intimidation, saturated by political calculation and the quest for short-term electoral advantage.

Politically, Republicans won this round in two ways. They got the president the bill he wanted, and that created absolute fury in the Democratic base. Pelosi has received more than 200,000 e-mails of protest, according to an aide, for letting the bill go forward.

Democrats concede they made an enormous tactical blunder by not dealing with the issue earlier, forcing the question to the fore in the days before the recess. One anxiety hovered over the debate: If a terrorist attack happened, and if Congress had not given Bush what he wanted, the Democrats would get blamed for a lack of vigilance.

“Could something happen over August?” asked Rep. Rush Holt, D-N.J., in an interview. “Sure it could. What bothered me is that too many Democrats allowed that fear to turn into a demand for some atrocious legislation.”

The saga also underscored how constrained congressional Democrats feel because of their tenuous majority in the Senate. Had the Senate sent the House an alternative bill, sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., the two houses could have put a more limited proposal on the president’s desk and challenged him to veto it. But the Levin-Rockefeller proposal failed.

McConnell, in the meantime, played an ambiguous role. Democrats acknowledge that the intelligence director never explicitly agreed to the House leadership’s proposal. But their fears that McConnell was not calling the shots were stoked when Democratic leaders tried at one point to reach him by phone. An assistant to McConnell let slip that the intelligence director could not pick up because he was on the line with the White House. It was another sign, said a top Democratic aide, that “the White House was driving the train on this.”

The entire display was disgraceful because an issue of such import should not be debated in a political pressure cooker. It’s not even clear that new legislation was required; Holt, for one, believes many of the problems with handling interceptions involving foreign nationals are administrative in nature, and that beefing up and reorganizing the staff around the FISA court might solve the outstanding problems.

But if legislation was needed, there were many ways to grant necessary authority while preserving real oversight. The Democrats got trapped, and they punted. The Republicans have never met a national security issue they’re not willing to politicize. This is no way to run a superpower.

E.J. Dionne’s e-mail address is postchat(at)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group


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