When Congress returns from its August recess, the fireworks will come from three interrelated issues—counterterrorism, border and port security, and national security. Republicans, not coincidentally, enjoy a political advantage on all three and expect extensive media coverage of these high-profile issues to give them a much-needed political boost going into the November elections.
Though the fall session will be brief, congressional leaders hope to force votes on some or all of the following:
• One or more bills to clarify the legality of National Security Agency programs to monitor phone calls, financial transactions and other communications involving suspected terrorists and persons in the U.S.
• Legislation granting explicit approval for the military tribunals used to prosecute suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay. (The Supreme Court ruled in its Hamdan decision that the current system lacks proper authorization from Congress.)
• A legislative enhancement of our port security that would establish more stringent security standards for ports and authorize an additional $5.5 billion for port security needs.
• Final approval of the annual spending bills for the Pentagon and the Department of Homeland Security.
• A second attempt to confirm John Bolton as U.S. ambassador to the United Nations.
Congressional leaders may try to advance other legislative initiatives such as those relating to offshore drilling for oil and natural gas, lobby reform, the presidential line-item veto and a bill to allow small businesses to form larger groups in order to buy more affordable health insurance. Because each is controversial and would therefore prompt Democratic filibusters, none stands a realistic chance of receiving that most precious commodity—floor time. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R.-Tenn.) and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R.-Ill.) are determined to end the fall session in late September to give politically endangered Republicans six uninterrupted weeks to return to their districts and campaign.
The one exception will be the anti-terrorism agenda listed above. Republican leaders will be more than happy if their Democratic colleagues erect procedural hurdles against these efforts to fight terrorist organizations. After all, the world will be watching.
And erect them the Democrats will.
Case in point: the controversial August 17 decision by federal District Court Judge Anna Diggs Taylor that the Bush Administration’s terrorist surveillance program was unconstitutional. Taylor, an appointee of President Jimmy Carter, accepted the arguments of the lead plaintiff, the ACLU, that the program violates privacy and free speech rights, the constitutional separation of powers and the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which created special courts to assess the legality of secret surveillance within the United States.
Republicans denounced the decision. “We stop terrorists,” Speaker Hastert said, “by watching them, following them, listening in on their plans and then arresting them before they can strike. Our terrorist surveillance programs … saved the day by foiling the London terror plot.” House Intelligence Committee Chairman Pete Hoekstra (R.-Mich.) said: “It is disappointing that a judge would take it upon herself to disarm America during a time of war.”
Yet leading Democrats rushed to the microphones to praise Taylor’s decision. The senior Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee, Jay Rockefeller (D.-W.Va.), labeled the terrorist surveillance program the Bush Administration’s “tragic failure.” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D.-Nev.) said the administration now must “work with the Congress to develop effective tools to defeat terrorists.” Translation: We Dems will proudly oppose initiatives that offend our civil-libertarian sensibilities.
Frist, it now appears, will grant Reid his wish and bring to the Senate floor in September the National Security Surveillance Act of 2006, authored by Senate Judiciary Chairman Arlen Specter (R.-Pa.). The bill authorizes the surveillance program and, significantly, acknowledges “the constitutional authority of the President” to conduct terrorist surveillance. Its preamble, moreover, makes a case for the program that will be hard to dispute on the campaign trail. Federal anti-terrorism investigators, it says, should have “tools at least as broad as those used by federal agents investigating domestic crimes” such as “drug conspiracies and money-laundering rings.”
However, Specter’s bill encompasses but one part of the broader anti-terrorist agenda.
Other parts of that agenda may be brought to the floor in other bills such as the Pentagon and Homeland Security spending bills, but the best floor strategy, as argued in this column last week, would be to give all of these anti-terrorism initiatives a unique identity by bundling them together into one robust legislative package. Call it Patriot Act II. There’s no better way to give the voters a single opportunity to assess the anti-terrorist agenda and judge their elected officials accordingly.