WASHINGTON, March 13, 2006 -- -- While Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., took to the Senate floor to blast President Bush's domestic spying program, other Senate Democrats concentrated on an issue they believe may hold more sway with the average voter -- the national debt.
"The president broke the law, ignored the Constitution and disregarded the rights and freedoms on which our country was founded," Feingold thundered on the Senate floor as he introduced his resolution. If Feingold gets enough of his colleagues' support to censure the president, it would be the first time for such a move since Senate Republicans censured Democrat Andrew Jackson in 1834.
But Feingold's Democratic colleagues gave him tepid support at best. Instead, they spent the day attacking the White House's budget for cutting programs that help fund police and firefighters, unveiling charts and graphs that purport to show how this White House has amassed more debt in five years than the previous 42 presidents combined.
Sen. Kent Conrad, D-N.D., who sits on the Senate Budget Committee and has taken on the role of chief Democrat in charge of creating alarming budget charts and graphs, said at least 10 times during his floor speech, "The debt is the threat."
The Senate must increase the debt ceiling by $800 billion over its current $8.2 trillion for the government to continue operating after next week, and Conrad and others have used the moment to target Bush's budget policies.
Earlier in the day, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and Sen. Joseph Lieberman, D-Conn., both declined to endorse the censure resolution. Rather than censure the president, Lieberman said he would "prefer to see us solve the problem."
Republicans, for their part, seized on Feingold's censure resolution, using it to label Democrats as weak on fighting terrorism. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist said the censure resolution would aid terrorists by jeopardizing a necessary tool in the war on terror.
Feingold has pushed only for the Senate to declare the president acted illegally in authorizing the controversial National Security Agency's domestic spying program and keeping it secret from the Senate and the public. He isn't calling to end the program itself, but the subtleties of his position are certainly harder to follow than a chart showing the ballooning budget deficit.
What's more, most polls show a majority of Americans support the domestic spying program.
Feingold, often rumored to have designs on running for president in 2008, has styled himself as a liberal but is intensely independent on many issues. He co-sponsored campaign finance reform legislation with Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and was the only Democrat to vote to hear evidence against President Clinton when the Senate impeached him.
Feingold eventually voted against removing Clinton from office, but he told reporters today that he thinks his many breaks with party ranks should inoculate him against Republican claims of political grandstanding.
After mentioning his vote against Clinton, he said "this time we have a Republican president and a Republican president who is breaking the law. Everybody who knows me knows that I would do the same thing if it were a Democrat in office."
Feingold's measure not only took attention away from Bush's deficit woes but united several Republicans who had been extremely critical of the president's spying program.
Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C. -- who both criticized the president's legal justification for the program -- took to the floor to criticize Feingold's censure resolution.
Senate Republicans argued that the White House compromised somewhat on the issue and began to brief a new Senate subcommittee on what exactly the NSA has been up to.
In the unlikely scenario that Feingold's censure resolution actually passes, it would simply be a written rebuke with no further ramifications for Bush.
It would likely keep the story in the news, however.