A long-debated provision over whether or not telephone companies would get a free pass for aiding the U.S. government in warrentless surveillance hits the Senate floor today. And it threatens to open up fissures within the Democratic Party.
In an interview with the Huffington Post on Thursday morning, Sen. Russ Feingold, who opposes granting immunity to those companies, expressed disappointment that his party's leader, Sen. Harry Reid, was not doing more to help strike the provision from a newly considered version of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
"Of course I have great respect for the Majority Leader," said Feingold. "He is a good friend of mine. But I really do disagree with his way of proceeding."
At issue is the likely passage of a version of FISA that contains retroactive immunity over one that doesn't. Reid has said he supports the former, but legislatively, the path has been paved for the passage of the latter. In addition, there is debate over an amendment offered by Sen. Chris Dodd, to strip immunity from any FISA bill. If that fails -- and it seems likely -- Dodd has threatened to filibuster the whole bill. On Wednesday, Reid was interpreted as saying any such filibuster will be the standing and talking variety as opposed to an agreed-upon 60-vote minimum threshold. Feingold, who supports Dodd's stance, took slight issue with that approach.
"We should have a normal process were this is debated based on a majority vote in the senate," said the Wisconsin Democrat. "That's the way it should have been done and I regret that it's not being done that way. Of course, I support Senator Dodd. He and I were principally involved in making sure this didn't get jammed through before the holidays and I will be supporting him again. But this decision does make it harder."
Speaking on the Senate floor Thursday morning before the debate, Reid addressed these concerns. He noted that he himself supported the Judiciary Committee version of the FISA bill, which would not give telecom companies a free ride from potential lawsuits.
Later in the day, however, that measure was tabled by a vote of 60 to 36. The Majority Leader has previously argued that, in the absence of the Judiciary bill, the Senate would consider the Intelligence Committee version, which grants immunity. Senators who objected to any amendment -- such as the one to be offered by Dodd -- would have to stand and argue for as long as they could.
"Senators Dodd and Feingold will seek to strike the immunity title entirely. I oppose immunity, and will support their amendment," said Reid. "If this amendment is not adopted, there will be other amendments to limit the immunity provisions in the Intelligence bill... As I have said before, if there are senators who don't like these amendments and think they should be subjected to 60-vote thresholds, these senators are going to have to engage in an old-fashioned filibuster."
By the end of Thursday debate had been postponed to Monday, after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell moved for a vote on cloture on the Intelligence committee version and Reid objected.
Senator Dodd was spared having to filibuster. But if it does resort to that, Feingold said he will do what he can to help strip telecom immunity from any measure.
"I started this fight two years ago when they first announced the illegal program and I've been working on it every day," he said. "And it has been a great help that Chris Dodd made it a part of his presidential campaign and now that he is back to work with me and others... It's a big help. It's very hard to do it alone."
Feingold was also happy to have the support of both Sen. Barack Obama and Sen. Hillary Clinton. The two Democratic frontrunners have said they oppose retroactive immunity. But, with the primary season heating up, it is unlikely they will offer anything more than rhetorical assurances.
"I'd love to have them back," said Feingold. "But it is not my job to tell them what to do on their campaigns. My understanding is that both of them have indicated support for what Senator Dodd and I are doing. So that's good. If we see real opportunity for a vote we can win, then yes. I would love to have them back."