Senator Chris Dodd is poised to take the Senate floor in an effort to derail a measure that would grant immunity to telecommunication companies that helped conduct warrantless surveillance on Americans.
Dodd left the campaign trail late last night, with only weeks to go until the Iowa caucus, to push for the removal of the immunity provision from a larger bill that Congress is considering on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
"Certainly two and a half weeks out from the Iowa Caucus, every day counts. We would love to be there. But this is something that Senator Dodd feels passionate about and he's willing to leave the campaign trail and stand up to Bush for it," said Dodd spokesperson Colleen Flanagan. "This is about FISA but it is also about so much more."
Early on Monday the Senate considered amendments to the Protect America Act, which would overhaul FISA, authorize the monitoring of people outside the United States, give secret courts the power to approve aspects of surveillance, and grant telecom companies retroactive immunity for past cooperation. A vote to table the bill, which has the support of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, and other prominent Democrats, was shot down 79 to 10. But opposition from some Senators, most prominently, Dodd and Sen. Russ Feingold, D-WI, remains heated.
In a floor speech today, Feingold made a spirited argument that the original FISA bill already included an immunity clause and that the courts, not Congress, should decide whether telecom companies deserve legal protections. He is also slated to introduce an amendment codifying these points and stripping immunity from the legislation.
Dodd seems poised to take his opposition even further, promising to go to the floor to filibuster debate until a legislative compromise of sorts could be reached. In preparation for the tour-de-force session, the Senator, according to advisers, wore comfortable shoes (he can't sit down), judiciously watched his liquid intake (he can't leave for the bathroom), and made sure to have plenty of different materials from which to read.
Aides say there are several like-minded Senators who have agreed to pose questions to Dodd during the session, the one way in which he is allowed to stop talking while maintaining the filibuster, according to Senate rules. He is, they say, hoping for all the help he can get including assistance from his White House competitors.
"Senators [Hillary] Clinton and [Barack] Obama have indicated their support for what Senator Dodd has talked about in the past," said Dodd's deputy campaign manager, Amos Hochstein. "I hope they are there to help Senator Dodd with the filibuster today but you would have to ask them about that."
Later in the day, several news sources confirmed that Clinton, Obama, and Sen. Joe Biden, D-DE, will not be leaving the campaign trail to assist in Dodd's effort.
In November, the House passed its own version of the Protect America Act, without the telecom immunity, by a vote of 227 to 189. President Bush responded by declaring his intentions to veto any bill that did not include the immunity measure; Congress, he said, must "grant liability protection to companies who are facing multi-billion-dollar lawsuits only because they are believed to have assisted in the efforts to defend our nation following the 9/11 attacks."
The Senate actually had two versions of the bill which it could have considered: one that included immunity and one without it. On Friday, Sen. Reid announced that he would move the former to the Senate floor. The decision sparked a firestorm among many Democrats and persuaded Dodd to undertake a filibuster.
"Providing retroactive immunity to companies that may have violated the law will set a dangerous precedent," said Dodd. "Companies who violated the trust of thousands of their customers will be immune to prosecution and the details of their actions will stay hidden."
Aides in Dodd's office declined to speculate how long their boss was prepared to see his filibuster through. Talk of a compromise has been bounced around within Democratic circles even prior to Monday's debate. But on a conference call with reporters, the Senator's commitment to removing the immunity provision was repeatedly underscored.
"He will speak as long as he can," Hochstein said. "He will speak until he can no longer."