Tuesday will be a day of reckoning for the politics of domestic spying.
The Senate Intelligence Committee is slated to vote, in a closed session, on whether it will investigate the president's NSA warrantless domestic wiretapping program. At this point, it could go either way.
With eight Republicans and seven Democrats on the committee, it'll take the defection of one Republican to make an investigation happen. Three Republicans on the committee have expressed doubts about the program -- Ohio's Mike DeWine, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, and Olympia Snowe of Maine.
Any investigation would be largely closed from public view, but the simple fact of it would be a blow to the White House, which has given ground on its assertions of executive power in recent weeks.
After delaying a Feb. 16 vote on whether to investigate, Republican leaders in the Senate have been working to convince moderates on the committee that a vote for an investigation is unnecessary.
Delaying the Vote
The vote was delayed after a last-minute lobbying campaign by the White House, including secret briefings on certain classified aspects of the programs for both the House and Senate intelligence committees. Republicans pointed to the briefings as evidence that the White House would consent to some sort of congressional oversight of the program.
Democrats, most notably Intelligence Committee ranking member Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia, said the briefings were not full and therefore not worthwhile. He said at the time that members did not get a sense of the full program.
Striking a Deal
Majority Leader Bill Frist and committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas have recently been trying to play peacemakers. Frist, R-Tenn., advertised closed meetings last week with Republicans critical of the program, including Hagel, Snowe, DeWine, and also some Republican members of the Judiciary Committee. It is unclear whether they have achieved a legislative fix for the program that would enable the White House to continue with it largely unchanged.
This "legislative fix" would potentially be similar to DeWine's idea to have Congress pass a retroactive law to legalize the program, potentially with more limited congressional oversight. It is unclear whether that oversight would have teeth or whether it would be the White House keeping select members of Congress somewhat more informed.
For another tack, Arlen Specter, R-Pa., has proposed sending the program for review before the FISA court, without further congressional review. The White House and Congress would then have to abide by whatever ruling or fix the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act handed down.