Feingold: Acting outside the box

Sen. Russ Feingold is a principled warrior for the little guy, an oft-isolated champion of civil liberties and clean government. Or he is a political opportunist casting about for a constituency as the 2008 Democratic presidential field begins to take shape.

It depends on whom you ask. Both could be true. And, as is seldom the case with controversial issues in the ultrapartisan Capitol, the friends and foes of Wisconsin’s junior senator are not neatly divided into party columns.

Feingold sent minor shockwaves through the political infrastructure Monday when he introduced a resolution that would censure President Bush for his warrantless domestic eavesdropping program, giving grist to supporters and critics alike.

“I make a practice never to question anyone’s political motivations nor divine them,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a Feingold friend who nonetheless termed the censure effort “unnecessary” and “unfortunate.”

McCain worked with Feingold on his signature legislative achievement. The two fought party leaders to enact a 2002 rewrite of federal campaign-finance laws, including a ban on the “soft money” political contributions that had given extra leverage to the establishment on both sides.

Some of McCain’s GOP colleagues have been less charitable about the censure effort. Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) accused Feingold of seeking to embarrass the president in the international community.

“It’s time for members of this Senate to grow up and think about the consequences of their actions,” Sessions said.

Republican leaders have asked Democrats to consent to an immediate vote on the resolution, a plea rebuffed by a minority party wary of divisive issues. Feingold insists that he did not intend the resolution to get a quick vote. Instead, he said, he wants to draw attention and scrutiny to the president’s domestic spying program.

“If that means I have to take some heat to get that back on the table, I’m happy to do it,” Feingold said yesterday.

Though his voting record is solidly liberal, Democrats have sometimes been annoyed with his willingness to stand apart from the rest of the caucus. Feingold is quick to point to such instances as evidence that his censure resolution is not a partisan act: He voted for John Ashcroft to become attorney general and for John Roberts to become chief justice of the Supreme Court, refused to dismiss impeachment charges against President Clinton and cast the sole Senate vote against the Patriot Act in 2001.

Feingold took a few swings at unnamed Democratic colleagues and strategists yesterday. He accused them of cowering when Republicans say Democrats are weak on national security.

“Too many Democrats are again going to make the same mistakes that they made in 2002 and 2004,” Feingold said.

He has argued that the nation’s enemies are emboldened not by Democratic criticism of the president but by Republican efforts to circumvent the existing political system.

“Censuring the president is not something that should be taken lightly. But the president has BROKEN the law and there needs to be action and accountability,” Feingold wrote Monday on the liberal Web log www.dailykos.com — an entry that had drawn more than 500 responses by midday yesterday. Feingold has his own diary on Daily Kos, exemplifying his status as a darling of his party’s increasingly influential online community.

Republicans leapt up to condemn Feingold for what they described as a cheap and potentially dangerous political stunt. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) told political supporters in an e-mail Monday that Feingold would put America at risk.

“Somewhere in America today, a radical Islamic terrorist could very well be picking up their phone and receiving a call from their overseas counterparts,” Frist wrote. “They will discuss plots to infiltrate U.S. cities and mount devastating attacks. Maybe in Nashville [Tenn.]. Or maybe in Madison [Wis.]. If Russ Feingold had his way, U.S. authorities would do this with the intercepted phone call: hang up.”

Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council upbraided Feingold in similar tones. “Senator Russ Feingold is perilously close to the border — I mean the border between loyal opposition and treasonous conduct,” Perkins said.

Feingold’s latest efforts may take him, characteristically, to uncharted territory. Even many Democrats who have been critical of the wiretapping program are keeping their distance on the censure issue.

Feingold says he has a small number of private commitments. Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said yesterday that she would support Feingold’s resolution if it ever gets a floor vote. But others were painstakingly noncommittal.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) called Feingold a “smart, principled, passionate person.” But Obama, who has found common cause with Feingold on lobbying reform, undertook only to “take a look” at the censure proposal.

“I haven’t made any final judgment,” Sen. Jeff Bingaman (D-N.M.) said as he ducked into a Democratic Caucus meeting. A minute later, Bingaman reappeared to say, “I won’t support it.”

Instead, he said, he would like to see an alternative calling for an investigation into the program by the Senate Intelligence Committee.

In 14 years in the Senate, Feingold has managed to build strong relationships despite taking unpopular stands.

“He’s a very serious legislator who’s a very principled man,” said Sen. Mike DeWine (R-Ohio), who serves with Feingold on the Intelligence and Judiciary committees. “It doesn’t mean I agree with him on this issue.”

While other senators with eyes on the White House can rely on deep-pocketed K Street supporters, Feingold’s most loyal allies often lie in the small but tenacious world of watchdog groups. These good-government advocates disputed the notion that Feingold’s bold positioning distances him from his party.

Feingold “took up lobbying reform before it was ever popular,” said Craig Holman of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “In many ways he reminds me of [the late Sen.] Paul Wellstone [D-Minn.], in the sense that he’s willing to push his convictions though they may be unpopular and is politically astute enough to make sure he doesn’t get isolated.”

Several watchdogs pointed out Feingold’s early leadership on lobbying reform — he was the first senator to submit a bill on the issue, in July — as an example of the Wisconsinite leading the way for other Democrats on difficult issues. The lack of an official McCain-Feingold partnership on lobbying and ethics, they said, did nothing to slow momentum in the Senate.

“Feingold has always been a strong advocate for reform, but he’s had a lot of things on his plate lately,” said Celia Wexler, Common Cause’s vice president for advocacy. “We understand that Senators McCain and Feingold wouldn’t always be in sync about things. They’re both running for president. Whether that plays into this, I don’t know.”

Elana Schor contributed to this report.

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