Feingold seeks censure of president
Little support seen for condemnation of wiretapping program
Sen. Russ Feingold introduces his resolution on the Senate floor Monday.
The Senate has censured a president only once -- in 1834, when an anti-administration coalition demanded that President Andrew Jackson produce a document having to do with his veto of a bill to recharter the Bank of the United States.
The body voted 26-20 to censure Jackson when he refused to provide the document to the Senate. The censure was "expunged" from the record in 1837 by a Senate again in the hands of Jacksonian Democrats.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Sen. Russ Feingold introduced a resolution Monday to censure President Bush for authorizing a no-warrant domestic surveillance program, accusing Bush of breaking the law and misleading Congress about it.
"When the president of the United States breaks the law, he must be held accountable," the Wisconsin Democrat told the Senate.
Feingold's action will likely be largely symbolic. No Republican senators, who hold a majority, are expected to vote for the resolution, and no other Democratic senators have expressed support for it.
"The president authorized an illegal program to spy on American citizens on American soil, and then misled Congress and the public about the existence and the legality of that program," said Feingold, a potential presidential candidate. (Watch Feingold, Cheney state their cases -- 2:01)
The Bush administration has argued that the resolution authorizing military action after the September 11, 2001, attacks, along with the president's authority as commander in chief of the military, give him the power to order U.S. intelligence agencies to monitor calls between people in the United States and terrorism suspects overseas without a court order, as a 1978 law requires. (Interactive: Government eavesdropping)
Administration officials have said the program, run by the National Security Agency, is necessary to battle terrorists, and that its disclosure in December damaged national security.
But Feingold said the administration's case "would be laughable if this issue were not so serious."
"The founders anticipated abuses of executive power by creating a balance of powers in the Constitution," he said. "Supporting and defending the Constitution, as we have taken an oath to do, require us to preserve that balance, and to have the will to act."
The White House and its allies in Congress hit back quickly, with Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist calling for a snap vote on the resolution.
Frist, a Tennessee Republican, called the measure "a political stunt that is addressed at attacking the president of the United States of America when we're at war."
He criticized Feingold for introducing the censure resolution "at the same time we have terrorists right now intending to attack Western civilization and the people of our homeland."
Democratic leaders objected to an immediate vote, saying Feingold's resolution deserved more time for consideration.
"To try to limit debate on this most important matter that Senator Feingold is going to put before the Senate is inappropriate," said Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat who supports the Iraq war, said he does not buy the Bush administration's argument that it had the legal authority to enact the program.
But, he said, "I'd prefer to see us solve the problem."
Cheney challenges Democrats
Meanwhile, at a Republican campaign event in Feingold's home state, Vice President Dick Cheney challenged Democrats to take a stand on the Feingold resolution.
He called the resolution an "outrageous proposition" and said it "poses a key test for our Democratic leaders: Do they support the extreme and counterproductive antics of a few, or do they support a lawful program vital to the security of this nation?"
The vice president asserted that Americans "agree with the president, and our administration's position is clear -- If there are individuals inside our country talking with al Qaeda overseas, we want to know about it."
Opinion polls have been closely split on the issue. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll in February found that 47 percent of those polled thought the administration was right to authorize a warrantless eavesdropping program, while 50 percent disagreed.
In a CNN interview earlier Monday, Feingold said the administration was playing a "game of intimidation" that appeared to be working.
"Even Republican senators have said this is not within the law," he said, referring to the wiretapping program. "But the intimidation campaign of calling people names makes people apparently afraid of saying exactly what the law is and stand up for the Constitution."
But a leading Republican skeptic of the NSA program, Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter, said Feingold's censure resolution was "vastly excessive."
If administration officials like Attorney General Alberto Gonzales are correct, Specter said, "then there is no violation of law by the president."
Briefings on the program have been limited to congressional leaders and members of the House and Senate Intelligence Committees so far.
Specter said he did not know if the program was legal and constitutional.
"I don't have any basis for knowing, because I don't know what the program does," he said in the Senate.
Specter suggested that Feingold's resolution be referred to his committee, which could hold hearings on the matter. Gonzales would disclose no details of the program in a hearing held last month before the Judiciary Committee.
Feingold told CNN on Monday that censure would "send a clear signal" that Bush's actions were wrong.
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