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Why Did Reid Pull the Telecom Bill?

I’d like to believe that Harry Reid pulled the telecom bill yesterday because members of the Senate actually did realize how shameless and horrifying their soliloquies on behalf of the poor beleaguered telecos made them sound, but I’m skeptical.

As I listened to Barb "Ma Kettle" Mikulski (D-LCD) on the floor of the Senate pining for the days when "blackberries wuz sumpin’ yew put on yer breakfast cereal," I didn’t pick up an iota of self awareness that might clue her into the fact that having such an intellectually shiftless luddite as a sitting US Senator, charged with making tech policy, was an international embarrassment.

Of course she reached the conclusion the telecoms were great patriots who were only doing their civic duty. She’s thick as a brick.

But it doesn’t appear that the Washington Post is any brighter. This morning, they faithfully reported that Reid spokesman Jim Manley says "the decision had nothing to do with the efforts of Dodd and his allies."

Who do I look like, Barbara Mikulski?

Marcy Wheeler:

Manley is, of course, full of shit. At the very least, Reid did the math to see that Dodd could filibuster this issue until the Christmas break, and since Reid intended to get funding done before the break, he was faced with postponing the break or punting the appropriations bills to the next year. So whatever else caused Reid to pull the bill, Dodd’s demonstration that he was willing to hold the Senate floor was one factor (apparently, Dodd only left the floor once during yesterday’s debate).

As Marcy notes, the Post’s rather superficial analysis of the situation also leaves out the subject of the Feinstein Amendment — and that may have been a poison pill which split the Senate into three factions and made the passage of a bill that Bush would not veto impossible. Since Reid is very much committed to passing a bill that will be in place when the old FISA bill sunsets on February 1, that probably posed a real problem for him.

Feinstein said she’d have a tough time voting for immunity without her amendment, and according to Marcy, it appears that this amendment "would have required the FISA Court to review the authorizations the telecoms received, to see whether they were legal, before the telecoms got immunity. If the FISA Court determined that those authorizations were not adequate under the law, then the telecoms would not get immunity."

This seems to have damn near sent Orrin Hatch into apoplexy, who — after he got done sputtering about blogs with an "irrational fear of government" (a little Ron Paul-itis, perhaps?) — said that Feinstein’s amendment might be "a poison pill for him–and presumably the other Republicans following Dick Cheney’s orders dutifully."

As Marcy notes:

[Feinstein’s] amendment would introduce the very real possibility that the FISA Court would rule that the White House Counsel could not legally authorize the telecoms to wiretap, and that therefore the wiretapping that occurred immediately after March 10, 2004–precisely the time period when the AG and the Acting AG determined that the wiretapping was not legal–was not legal. DiFi’s amendment was poison for Hatch because it threatens to hold the telecoms responsible for continuing the wiretap program during the period when the AG refused to authorize the program. And, of course, it therefore threatens to certify in a court that Bush’s actions following the hospital confrontation were illegal. In other words, DiFi’s amendment threatens to scuttle the real intent of the immunity provision, protecting Bush from any legal consequences for wiretapping illegally.

But the Post article also does not delve into the fact that Chris Dodd’s filibuster threatened to shine a bright light on how craven the other Democratic presidential hopefuls looked when they chose to stay in Iowa and promote themselves rather than come back to Washington DC and defend the constitution. No doubt the telecoms, the Bush administration and their Democratic allies will have plenty of time to regroup and the fight will resume in January at a much more fevered pitch, but the delay may also pull the Senate presidential hopefuls back into the debate — who have thus far given lukewarm pledges of support to Dodd.

And Glenn Greenwald brings up another aspect of the battle that the Post seems blissfully unaware of, and that is about how the whole notion of one man taking a stand on this issue came to pass. I first asked Dodd in early October on Air America if he would commit to filibuster retroactive telecom immunity, and he said at the time "Well, may have to do that….Hope it doesn’t come to that."

But it did. And on October 18, when the deal that Jello Jay Rockefeller and Dick Cheney made to give the telecoms immunity in exchange for…well, virtually nothing… was announced, an outcry rose up on the liberal blogs:

[T]here was an email exchange between a relatively small group of bloggers and a couple of representatives from grass-roots organizations in which the same idea arose: finding a Senator who would be willing to place a "hold" on the Rockefeller immunity bill. Earlier that morning, Big Tent Democrat noted that Chris Dodd had issued a strongly worded statement against Jay Rockefeller’s bill, and he urged Dodd to announce he would lead a filibuster against the bill. Based on all of that, it was quickly recognized, both in comments and in that email group, that the obvious choice to target for a "hold" was Dodd, who had made constitutional and oversight issues the centerpiece of his presidential campaign.

Within literally a matter of minutes, numerous blogs began urging their readers to contact the Dodd campaign to ask Dodd to place a "hold" on any bill containing immunity. Blog readers deluged the Dodd campaign by the thousands, tying up their telephones and overflowing their email boxes.

It was exclusively in response to that blog-based outpouring of citizen passion that Dodd — within a matter of a few hours — emphatically vowed that he would do something he has almost never done during his 24-year Senate career: place a "hold" on this bill and, if necessary, lead a filibuster against it on the floor of the Senate. Dodd’s responsiveness, and the all-too-rare leadership he displayed, prompted an outpouring of support for his campaign from citizens hungry for any sort of Democratic leadership, as he raised $200,000 in small donations over the next 24 hours alone, exceeding the total he had raised for the preceding many months.

Reid may be going out of his way to deny that Dodd and his allies had any effect on what happened yesterday, and the Washington Post may be fooled, but nobody else is.  It’s a hollow and pride-filled retort of a man who responded with high-handed arrogance and was resoundingly beaten.  As Margaret Mead once said, "never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."  Reid lost sight of that fact. 

But Harry Reid is a man with a lot to worry about — he’s up for reelection in 2010, his poll numbers in Nevada are terrible and there are two words that have to be keeping him up at night: Tom Daschle.

Maybe his political instincts are getting a little rusty. Maybe it’s time for him to give up the Senate leadership to someone else.

Someone like…Chris Dodd.

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Jane Hamsher

Jane Hamsher

Jane is the founder of Her work has also appeared on the Huffington Post, Alternet and The American Prospect. She’s the author of the best selling book Killer Instinct and has produced such films Natural Born Killers and Permanent Midnight. She lives in Washington DC.
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