FISA overhaul spat moves from Capitol to campaign

The contentious debate over rewriting the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) may be over in the House, but it’s just starting to gain ground on the campaign trail.

Republicans want to make it a national security issue this November. Democrats think that argument is outdated. But the majority party does acknowledge a new onslaught from liberal activists, who, though usually sympathetic to Democrats, are now talking about challenging some candidates based on the recent FISA overhaul.

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The FISA deal reached between Republicans and centrist Democrats proposes to change the nation’s spying laws and provide an avenue for telecommunication companies that participated in the Bush administration’s domestic wiretapping program to be immune from lawsuits. The bill passed the House 293-129 last week, with most Democrats opposing it and just one Republican voting against it.

The vote is evidence that the country is still in a “center-right position” when it comes to terrorist surveillance, said Ken Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC).

“Democrats are desperately trying to take the terrorist surveillance issue off the table now that the election is within sight, but this doesn’t change the fact that many of them voted against the critical intelligence program at every turn,” Spain said. “Just because they caved to Republican pressure in the end doesn’t mean we won’t expose their abysmal records.”

The NRCC has already cited House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), who brokered the deal, as a way to go after Democrats who opposed it.

“[Rep.] Bill FosterGeorge (Bill) William FosterFormer Obama Ebola czar Ron Klain says White House's bad decisions have put US behind many other nations on COVID-19; Fears of virus reemergence intensify Overnight Defense: Army now willing to rename bases named after Confederates | Dems demand answers on 'unfathomable' nuke testing discussions | Pentagon confirms death of north African al Qaeda leader Top Democrats demand answers on Trump administration's 'unfathomable' consideration of nuclear testing MORE (D-Ill.) sent a message to the voters of Illinois today that he is more interested in putting special interest politics above our national security,” Spain wrote in a release last week.

But Foster, a staunch telecom immunity critic who won a March special election to replace House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), and other liberal Democrats have emerged unscathed by previous FISA attacks, a Democratic strategist noted.

“I think the sort of scare tactics and fear-mongering [Republicans have] used to try to demagogue this issue are a reminder of the past,” the strategist said. “Voters have basically grown tired of it. They just don’t believe the party anymore on a whole realm of issues. National security is one of them.”

A new poll suggests that the FISA debate hasn’t resonated with voters in the way Republicans would like it to. According to the Rasmussen survey, 32 percent of likely voters think the government worries too much about protecting individual rights, while the same proportion believes that the government is too worried about national security.

Republicans may also have a difficult time paying for attacks focusing on FISA, with the NRCC raising far less money than its Democratic counterpart and with polls showing other issues — the economy, energy costs and the Iraq war — more on voters’ minds.

Republicans may have to rely on outside advocacy groups to push the issue; the NRCC has even circulated the names of Democratic opponents of the White House-backed FISA deal among telecom companies and their political action committees (PACs). One advocacy group advised by former House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies, ran ads earlier this year criticizing House Democratic freshmen for not supporting a bill that included immunity. The ads ran in the districts of Reps. Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandBiden should pick the best person for the job — not the best woman Overnight Defense: Guardsman to testify Lafayette Square clearing was 'unprovoked escalation' | Dems push for controversial Pentagon nominee to withdraw | Watchdog says Pentagon not considering climate change risks to contractors Democrats urge controversial Pentagon policy nominee to withdraw MORE (N.Y.), Michael Arcuri (N.Y.), Nancy Boyda (Kan.), Tim Walz (Minn.), Chris MurphyChristopher (Chris) Scott MurphyDemocrats want Biden to debate Trump despite risks Connecticut senators call for Subway to ban open carry of firearms Democrats optimistic about chances of winning Senate MORE (Conn.) and several others, according to Factcheck.org.

Liberal online activists are also looking to pressure Democrats over FISA. The netroots movement, a group of liberal bloggers and online activists, has been among the staunchest opponents of telecom immunity.

Blue America PAC, a group led by blogger Glenn Greenwald, has raised more than $310,000, much of which has been used to criticize Hoyer for going along with Republicans. The group bought a full-page ad in The Washington Post saying that Hoyer has made it possible for the Bush administration to wiretap “everyday Americans.”

“This election should be about change after the Bush administration, and I think that this vote shows a real jarring contradiction in this message,” said Joan McCarter, who blogs about FISA as mcjoan on Daily Kos. “From the outside, it really looks like business as usual. You know — ‘Congress bought and paid for by the telecoms.’ ”

McCarter and other bloggers have praised recently elected Rep. Donna Edwards (D-Md.) and Democratic House challengers such as Darcy Burner (Wash.) and Gary Trauner (Wyo.) for being vocal opponents of Republicans over FISA. These candidates have been rewarded with strong fundraising support online; for instance, Edwards on ActBlue.com has raised more than $455,000 this cycle, which is more than a third of her $1.18 million haul.

While it may be too late to challenge Democratic supporters of the FISA rewrite in primaries this year, the activists have said that they won’t forget.

“Will we actively work against them [in 2008]? Probably not,” McCarter said. “In 2010, that’s an open question.”