By Alexander Bolton - 09/15/09 10:00 AM EDT
Sen. Russ Feingold has again staked out a lonely position on national security — but for the first time, he faces a fight with a Democratic president.
The Wisconsin senator is the only Democrat in the upper chamber to call on President Barack Obama to set a flexible timeline for withdrawing American troops from Afghanistan.
The difference then was he was opposing President George W. Bush. Now he’s standing firm against a man whom he supported in the election — without any apologies.
“I just speak my mind, I call ’em as I see ’em,” Feingold told The Hill. “If something bothers me, I say it. I don’t wait for the water to be warm. If I think something’s wrong, I think it’s my job to identify it.”
This time around, he may have some company sooner.
On Sunday, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) called for the American mission in Afghanistan to be “time-limited” and said the administration should tell
Congress exactly when troops will return home. Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Bob Casey Jr. (D-Pa.) have signaled concerns that suggest they may join Feingold.
That could force Obama to rely on Republican support if he decides to increase troop levels without setting a withdrawal date.
Feingold said he has waged lonely battles in the past but that Democratic colleagues eventually came to his side.
While nearly 100 Democrats in the House signed onto a proposal to develop an exit strategy for Afghanistan, Senate Democrats had kept quiet. That began to change, however, after Feingold called for a withdrawal timeline.
Kerry, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has questioned whether the military mission is accomplishing Obama’s security goals and whether such a large military presence may be counterproductive, according to an aide.
After visiting the country, Brown said Afghanistan’s fledgling government needs to show more signs of progress and has warned that U.S. military aid could be limited.
Casey, who also toured the combat zone during the August recess, says that the Afghan government has to take a larger role in providing security and warned the U.S. commitment will not be open-ended.
And Sanders, who caucuses with Democrats, now says that lawmakers need to begin a “real discussion” about an exit strategy for U.S. troops.
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) told The Hill in a statement that she would not support sending additional troops.
“I won’t support a request for more troops in Afghanistan,” Boxer said. “I want to use the troops we have there now to train the Afghan security forces and go after al Qaeda.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) would prefer Democrats hold off with their opposition until Obama has staked out his position, hoping to avoid a display of party disunity.
“The thing I’m going to do and I recommend to my caucus is let’s just take it easy,” Reid said last week. “I’m going to wait, as I recommend to my caucus, wait until the president makes up his mind as to what he thinks should be done.
“In the meantime I don’t think we need a hundred secretaries of State.”
While Reid and Feingold disagree about whether it’s proper for a lawmaker to speak out on the war before Obama sets his policy, the Democratic leader nevertheless respects his colleague’s judgment.
Soon after he took over as Democratic leader, Reid invited Feingold to sit in on the weekly leadership meetings.
Feingold represents a state with a robust history of left-leaning politics — former Sen. Robert “Fighting Bob” La Follette is a liberal legend — and lawmakers respect his keen sense of the party’s base.
“People back home are telling me they want us out of Afghanistan,” he said. “They’re very concerned.”
But sometimes he relies on instincts over public opinion. In October 2001, with the country still in a state of shock from the attacks that killed thousands in New York and Washington and fearful of another attack, Feingold voted against giving law enforcement broad new authority to eavesdrop on phone conversations and investigate suspected terrorists.
Four years later, most of his Democratic colleagues — and a few Republicans — joined him in filibustering the reauthorization of the legislation. That forced Bush to accept revisions and enough senators dropped their objections, allowing the reauthorization to became law in 2006. But Feingold remained unsatisfied and spoke out against the powers in the hours leading up to the final vote.
Feingold’s dogged fight earned the respect of colleagues — even his party leader, who opposed him.
“I wish to say at this time that Sen. Russ Feingold is a person for whom I have great admiration; we are so fortunate that he is a senator,” Reid said in a
Senate floor speech in March 2006. “So I want the record to be spread with my words that Russ Feingold is a fine lawyer. I congratulate and applaud him for his work on this and other issues.”
Reid would come around to backing Feingold on another critical issue.
Feingold was one of 23 senators to vote against the Iraq war in 2002, and he became the first senator to call on Bush to offer a timetable to end the war.
In July of 2007, an amendment to reduce forces in Iraq was supported by every Senate Democrat.
Feingold predicts a similar turnaround on Afghanistan.
“I think there’s growing apprehension about this in the country and I think it will be reflected by members of the Senate,” he said.