June 21, 2008—In November 2006 when Democrats won control of Congress for the first time in 12 years, Rep. Nancy Pelosi explained the significance behind the record voter turnout that helped shift the balance of power in Washington.
“People voted for change and they voted for Democrats who will take our country in a new direction,” Pelosi said during a victory speech in San Francisco on Nov. 8, 2006.
But Pelosi, who became House Speaker, never managed to exact the change she promised, culminating in what some progressives have termed the “twin sell-outs” of this past week.
House Democratic leaders gave the Bush administration sweeping new domestic spying powers (including immunization of telecom companies that participated in possibly illegal surveillance of American citizens) and agreed to further fund the occupation of Iraq with a promise to the White House that the final bill would not include benchmarks or timetables for withdrawal.
The Senate is expected to vote on both bills next week with the apparent Democratic hope that the divisive issues won’t pop up during the presidential campaign in the fall. President Bush said he will sign both pieces of legislation when they reach his desk
The passage of the emergency supplemental bill to continue military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan took place less than 24 hours before former White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s testified before the House Judiciary Committee on Friday.
There, McClellan told lawmakers that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in March 2003 was based largely on phony intelligence that was used by the Bush administration to win support for the war.
As these two central issues of Bush’s presidency – the Iraq War and warrantless spying – crisscrossed over the two days, McClellan’s testimony actually was interrupted so Judiciary Committee members could join in the debate on overhauling the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA).
That measure was brokered over the past two weeks by Pelosi and Democratic House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer despite an outcry from constitutionalists that the plan gave the President far too much power, including the authority to wiretap for one week before seeking a warrant.
The bill also doomed about 40 lawsuits that are pending against telecom companies, such as AT&T and Verizon, for taking part in the administration’s warrantless surveillance program that the Bush administration justified by citing the 9/11 attacks. Many civil liberties groups believe the surveillance was illegal, violating both the FISA law and the Fourth Amendment.
Pelosi called the new FISA bill a “compromise” and pointed out that it does require the telecom companies to show a federal district court that they had written presidential instructions to tap phones and e-mails. If the documents are in order, a judge would dismiss the lawsuit.
In addition to this immunity provision, civil liberties and privacy groups are opposed to the bill because they say it weakens oversight of the surveillance court and extends the time -- from 72 hours to one week -- during which the administration can conduct wiretaps without seeking a warrant.
“It’s Christmas morning at the White House thanks to this vote,” said Caroline Fredrickson, director of the American Civil Liberties Union Washington Legislative Office.
“The House just wrapped up some expensive gifts for the administration and their buddies at the phone companies. It is not a meaningful compromise, except of our constitutional rights.
“The bill allows for mass, untargeted and unwarranted surveillance of all communications coming into and out of the United States. The courts’ role is superficial at best, as the government can continue spying on our communications even after the FISA court has objected.
“Democratic leaders turned what should have been an easy FISA fix into the wholesale giveaway of our Fourth Amendment rights."
Rep. Maurice Hinchey, D-New York, who voted against the surveillance bill, said he understands there is a need to update the 1978 FISA law in light of the technological advancements to communications over the past 30 years.
But “sacrificing our basic civil liberties and granting de facto immunity to telecommunication companies that may have violated the law to appease the Bush administration is simply unacceptable,” Hinchey said.
In a strange twist, Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pennsylvania, sparred with Pelosi over the extraordinary powers the Democrats’ bill grants to the White House, saying the legislation does not appear to prevent the White House from initiating surveillance without a court order.
“This proposal dodges" that, Specter said.
Meanwhile, the $162 billion emergency supplemental war appropriations bill sailed through the House by a vote of 268-155 and won support from Democrats largely as a result of the tens of billions of dollars in domestic spending attached to the legislation, including an extension of unemployment insurance, and funding for a new GI Bill for Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans.
The bill ensures the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are funded well into 2009 and brings the total cost for the conflict to about $650 billion.
In a floor statement before the bill was passed, Pelosi lauded her colleagues for working in a bipartisan manner and explained why she was voting in favor of the legislative package.
“I cannot fully participate in all of the camaraderie that is accompanying this legislation because of the huge amount of money that is in this bill to fund the war in Iraq without any conditions, without any limitation on time spent there,” Pelosi said.
“President Bush started a war based on a false premise,” Pelosi continued. “He sent our troops into a situation that he didn’t know what he was getting into.
“Five years later we are still engaged in the war in Iraq. Two years longer than we were in World War II. And that has come at a very great cost. The costs are clear, of course, and we all mourn: 4,100 of our troops have lost their lives in battle; tens of thousands of our troops injured, many of them permanently. …
“We sent the original bill to the Senate with conditions and they struck it,” Pelosi said. “We have no choice. This is not about a failure of the House of Representatives. It’s about what we cannot get past the next body and onto the next President’s desk...
“I will enthusiastically vote for the domestic portion, I’m not urging anyone to do anything. I just want you to know why I will be voting no on the [war] spending without constraint.”
Pelosi’s comments appeared disingenuous to many, since she was largely responsible for crafting the appropriations bill in backroom discussions with House Democratic leaders and then worked secretly with the White House budget director offering up concessions on Iraq War benchmarks if Bush would agree to the domestic spending attached to the final bill, according to aides to several Democratic leaders in the House.
There was little debate preceding a vote on the measure.
"The president basically gets a blank check to dump this war on the next president," said Congressman Jim McGovern, D-Massachusetts. “I was hoping George Bush would end his war while he's president."
Since the electoral victories in November 2006, the Democratic-controlled Congress has approved more than $300 billion in emergency spending bills for Iraq and Afghanistan without the benchmarks or withdrawal timetables that Pelosi and other leaders said they would demand.
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This story was published on June 23, 2008.