The debate over how the Bush administration has conducted its warrantless wiretapping program seems to be nearing a legislative end.
On Thursday, the United State Senate voted overwhelmingly to advance a legislative compromise on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, marking the beginning of the end of a fierce battle over civil liberties and national security that has been waged in the halls of Congress for more than three years.
And yet, for all of the political passions the issue engendered, the fight over FISA ended with something of a whimper. The final product -- much to the consternation of the progressive community -- gave the president wide authority to monitor terrorist suspects and collect communications from U.S. citizens without review. It also offered telecommunications companies that helped with the previously illegal program immunity from lawsuits, a hard provision to swallow for the program's opponents.
In the end, only 15 U.S. Senators were willing to resort to procedural tactics as a last ditch effort to hold up the legislation. The list of those who voted against cloture included:
Joseph Biden, DE
Barbara Boxer, CA
Sherrod Brown, OH
Maria Cantwell, WA
Chris Dodd, CT
Dick Durbin, IL
Russ Feingold, WI
Tom Harkin, IA
John Kerry, MA
Frank Lautenberg, NJ
Patrick Leahy, VT
Robert Menendez, NJ
Bernie Sanders, VT
Chuck Schumer, NY
Ron Wyden, OR
For the White House and the majority of the Senate, the FISA compromise has been hailed as a political breakthrough. "I think the White House got a better deal than even they had hoped to get," Republican Sen. Kit Bond told the New York Times.
Sen. Barack Obama, a reluctant supporter of the bill, said he would work to strip telecom immunity from its language. However, he added, "My view on FISA has always been that the issue of the phone companies per se is not one that overrides the security interests of the American people."
Others were not so willing to concede. Sen. Chris Dodd, who left the campaign trail before Iowa to threaten a filibuster of a FISA compromise that included immunity, today bemoaned the fact that the public would never know the scope of the administration's actions.
"We're closing the door, never to know why this happened, who ordered it, why did they avoid [the courts], what was behind their thinking," said the Connecticut Democrat. "And that is a dangerous step for us."
Sen. Russ Feingold, another aggressive opponent of the compromise, spoke with sorrow over his party's unwillingness to put up a principled fight.
"It's the latest chapter of running for cover when the Administration tries to intimidate Democrats on national security issues," he told The Young Turks radio show. "It's the most embarrassing failure of the Democrats I've seen since 2006, other than the failure to vote to end the Iraq war. These are the two real sad aspects of an otherwise pretty good record. It's letting George Bush and Dick Cheney have their way even though they're that unpopular and on their way out. It's really incredible."
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