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History > 2008 > USA > Politics > Senate (I)




Finance Officials Face Wary Lawmakers


September 24, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. received an angry and skeptical reception on Tuesday when he appeared before the Senate Banking Committee as he called on Congress to act promptly to give him wide authority to rescue the nation’s financial system.

Mr. Paulson urged the lawmakers “to enact this bill quickly and cleanly, and avoid slowing it down with other provisions that are unrelated or don’t have broad support.” But one after another, senators from both parties said that, while they were prepared to move fast, they are far from ready to give the administration everything it wants in its proposed $700 billion rescue plan.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the panel, called the Treasury proposal “stunning and unprecedented in its scope and lack of detail.”

Asserting that the plan would allow Mr. Paulson to act with “absolute impunity,” Senator Dodd said, “After reading this proposal, I can only conclude that it is not only our economy that is at risk, Mr. Secretary, but our Constitution, as well.”

Another expression of disgust came from Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, who said the plan would “take Wall Street’s pain and spread it to the taxpayers.”

“It’s financial socialism, and it’s un-American,” Mr. Bunning said.

Senator Dodd called the crisis “entirely foreseeable and preventable, not an act of God,” and said it angered him to think about “the authors of this calamity” walking away with the proverbial golden parachutes while taxpayers pick up the tab.

“There is no second act on this,” Mr. Dodd said, acknowledging that speed was important. But it is more important, he said, “to get it right.”

In remarks prepared for testimony before the Senate Banking Committee, Mr. Paulson said that “this troubled asset purchase program is the single most effective thing we can do to help homeowners, the American people, and stimulate our economy.”

He noted that Congress had moved quickly earlier this year to pass an economic stimulus program. The challenge this time, he said, was greater and demanded “bipartisan discipline and urgency.”

With global financial stresses and uncertainties continuing to play out, the chairman of the Federal Reserve, Ben S. Bernanke, warned in his testimony that “if financial conditions fail to improve for a protracted period, the implications for the broader economy could be quite adverse.”

Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, recalled Mr. Bernanke telling him in a recent meeting that the growing freeze in the credit markets, spawned by troubles with shaky mortgages, meant that “the arteries are clogged,” and that without action “the patient will surely suffer a heart attack.”

So Congress will act quickly, Mr. Schumer said, but not without strict scrutiny. “Even on Wall Street, $700 billion is a lot of money,” he said.

None of the senators disputed the grim possibilities if Congress should do nothing, but it was clear that they are hearing from their angry constituents. Senator Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina, for instance, said people in her state have been complaining about “costly and reckless” behavior on Wall Street, and the potential cost to people who are anything but wealthy. (Senator Dole is running for re-election.)

President Bush, speaking in New York before the markets opened, expressed confidence that Congress would agree on a financial bailout plan and left open the possibility of accepting amendments being proposed by Democrats.

“Now there’s a natural give and take when it comes to the legislative process,” Mr. Bush said in brief remarks with the president of Pakistan, Asif Ali Zardari. “There are good ideas that need to be listened to in order to get a good bill that will address the situation.”

In a statement released earlier in the day, Mr. Bush said he had reassured worried world leaders that the United States had the “right plan” to deal with the crisis.

Vice President Cheney was on Capitol Hill Tuesday morning, trying to round up support for the administration’s package. But the senators on the banking panel were unanimous in calling for ways to protect taxpayers’ investments — which at $700 billion would amount to $2,300 for every American citizen, Senator Mike Enzi, Republican of Wyoming, noted.

Mr. Paulson had been expected to encounter sharp questioning from lawmakers about the scope of the program, although several members of the banking committee applauded the credentials of Mr. Paulson and Mr. Bernanke.

Democrats and Republicans are eager to include legislation that would protect mortgage holders, cut the salaries of executives at Wall Street firms and prevent a breakdown of the financial system.

Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the ranking Republican on the panel, expressed disdain for regulars “who sat on the sidelines” as the crisis was building. He recalled, too, that Alan Greenspan, the former Federal Reserve chairman, once told him that the rate of borrowing in the American economy and the high percentage of their incomes that many people were spending on their homes posed “a rather small risk to the mortgage market.”

Mr. Shelby complained that the emerging program seemed to be “a series of ad hoc measures,” rather than the kind of comprehensive approach that is needed.

The back-and-forth came as the Bush administration and Congressional leaders moved closer to some kind of agreement on an historic $700 billion bailout, including tight oversight of the program and new efforts to help homeowners at risk of foreclosure.

But Congress and the administration remained at odds over the demands of some lawmakers, including limits on the pay of top executives, and new authority to allow bankruptcy judges to reduce mortgage payments for borrowers facing foreclosure.

Congressional leaders and Treasury officials also said they were close to an agreement over a proposal by some Democrats in which taxpayers could receive an ownership stake, in the form of warrants to buy stock, from firms seeking to sell distressed debt.

Lawmakers want to require an equity stake, while the administration wants flexibility on that matter, a Treasury official said.

In his prepared remarks, Mr. Bernanke said the Fed was reluctant to intervene in the market, saying it should be done “only when the stability of the financial system and, consequently, the health of the broader economy is at risk.”

Such conditions applied in the deteriorating financial situation at the mortgage finance giants, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, Mr. Bernanke said. He also said that the government tried to let market forces handle the problems at the investment bank Lehman Brothers and the insurance giant American International Group, but the rapid sequences of events caused “extraordinarily turbulent conditions in global financial markets.”

Even after the actions of the Fed and the Treasury, Mr. Bernanke said, “global financial markets remain under extraordinary stress. Action by the Congress is required to stabilize the situation and avert what otherwise could be very serious consequences for our financial markets and our economy.”

Mr. Bernanke’s testimony was exceptionally brief, considering the enormous stakes involved, a mere nine paragraphs, much of it devoted to a recapitulation of the growing crisis and how it took shape.

It seemed to reflect the way Mr. Paulson and the administration have presented the bailout legislation, in bare-bones fashion, but with a clear tone of urgency.

The White House has begun intensive lobbying to persuade nervous lawmakers to support the plan. Joshua B. Bolten, the White House chief of staff, and Keith Hennessy, the chairman of Mr. Bush’s National Economics Council, were also headed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday.

Tony Fratto, Mr. Bush’s deputy secretary, told reporters there is a “great sense of urgency” to get the legislation passed this week.

Mark Landler reported from Washington; Steven Lee Myers from New York. Brian Knowlton and Sheryl Gay Stolberg contributed reporting from Washington.

    Finance Officials Face Wary Lawmakers, NYT, 24.9.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/09/24/business/economy/24fannie.html






Senator Charged

in Scheme to Hide Oil Firm Gifts


July 30, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, a legendary political figure closely tied to the rough-and-tumble history of his home state, and who wields outsize influence over federal spending, was indicted on Tuesday on seven felony counts of failing to disclose gifts that he received from an oil services company.

A federal grand jury in the District of Columbia charged Mr. Stevens, who is 84 and the longest-serving Republican in the Senate, with failing to report more than $250,000 in gifts, including extensive renovations to his house in Alaska, a Land Rover and home furnishings on financial disclosure forms that he filed from 1999 to 2006.

The indictment said that Mr. Stevens “knowingly and willfully engaged in a scheme to conceal” the gifts he received from the VECO Corporation, once one of Alaska’s largest oil field contractors, and its former chief executive, William J. Allen, who last year pleaded guilty in the case. And it comes nearly a year to the day after F.B.I. agents raided the senator’s home as part of a long-running and expansive public corruption investigation in Alaska.

Mr. Stevens was informed of the indictment through a telephone call to his lawyer on Tuesday morning and was allowed to surrender instead of being arrested. He was expected to make an initial appearance in Washington before a federal judge, Emmet G. Sullivan, once a hearing is scheduled.

Mr. Stevens declared his innocence and his intention to fight the charges against him in a statement posted on his Web site. “I am innocent of these charges and intend to prove that,” he said.

But the indictment dealt a sharp blow to Mr. Stevens’s effort to win re-election in November, and raised the hopes of Democrats who have not won a Senate race in Alaska since 1974. Democrats were already relishing the chance to unseat Mr. Stevens, having recruited Mark Begich, the popular mayor of Anchorage, to challenge him. Mr. Stevens first must face six Republican challengers in the state’s Aug. 26 primary.

In his statement, Mr. Stevens also noted that he had served the nation and Alaska for more than half a century, beginning in World War II. “I have never knowingly submitted a false disclosure form required by law as a U.S. senator,” he said in the statement.

He also said that, in accordance with Senate Republican rules, he had relinquished, temporarily, his leadership positions, as senior Republican on the Commerce Committee and on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee. He had served as chairman of the full Appropriations Committee for nearly a dozen years, and also as president pro tem of the Senate from 2003 to 2007, which put him third in line for the presidency.

Mr. Stevens, a short, square-shouldered man who shuffles through the Capitol these days in shoes with thick-cushioned soles, has long been a powerful force in the Senate, directing hundreds of millions of dollars to Alaska each year. Mr. Stevens is regarded as a nearly heroic figure in Alaska, where he is often called Uncle Ted, and played a crucial role in its achievement of statehood, which became official in 1959. Hardened by decades of legislative battles, he can be soft-spoken but also one of the most cantankerous lawmakers.

Mr. Stevens was not charged with performing improper favors for VECO, the company that gave him the unreported gifts, although the indictment said Mr. Stevens “could and did use his official position and his office on behalf of VECO.” At a news conference on Tuesday, prosecutors said they would not explain why the exchange of favors did not itself result in a charge.

The indictment said that Mr. Stevens met with the company to discuss its projects in Pakistan and Russia, its requests for “multiple federal grants and contracts to benefit VECO” and federal and state assistance in an effort to construct a natural gas pipeline from the North Slope of Alaska.

The indictment of a sitting senator, particularly one of Mr. Stevens’s seniority and stature, reverberated swiftly and ominously through the Capitol, in no small part because of the political implications.

Democrats already had high hopes that they would win more seats in November. They now control the Senate by a razor-thin 51 to 49, thanks only to two independents who vote with them.

As far-fetched as it might seem, some Democrats have started thinking aloud that they may be able to win nine more seats in November, bringing them a filibuster-proof majority of 60.

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, boasted on Tuesday that Senate Democrats were mounting strong races against Republicans in 11 states.

The indictment could have implications beyond Mr. Stevens’s political future. It could set back Republican efforts to open more of Alaska to oil drilling. Mr. Stevens has been a powerful voice in favor of more drilling, including in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge of Alaska.

The charges also handed Democrats an easy political weapon. Mr. Stevens has been a prolific fund-raiser for his party’s candidates, and Democrats immediately attacked several Republican incumbents for accepting money from him.

Mr. Stevens, in his committee positions, has helped funnel billions of federal dollars to Alaska. Since 1999, he has directed more than $3 billion in earmarks — pet projects sought by lawmakers outside the usual budget process — for Alaska, according to Citizens Against Government Waste, a Washington advocacy group.

One earmark that became a symbol of wasteful excess was the so-called Bridge to Nowhere, which was to connect the town of Ketchikan to a small, sparsely populated island, even though funds for the project were ultimately canceled.

Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, refused on Tuesday to answer questions about Mr. Stevens. Appearing before a huge throng of reporters at what is normally a regular weekly news conference, Mr. McConnell spoke for a scant 21 seconds.

“Let me just say that the Republican conference, like you, just learned of this news,” he said. “We’ll no doubt have more to say about it later.”

Mr. Reid said he learned of the indictment in an e-mail message from a staff member. He arrived at the lectern for his weekly news conference flashing a wide smile, the TV camera lights glinting off his teeth.

“I, of course, have served with Senator Stevens my entire Congressional career,” said Mr. Reid, who was elected to the Senate in 1986. “It’s a sad day for him, us. But you know I believe in the American system of justice. He is presumed innocent.”

Mr. Reid said that Senate Republicans would have to decide how to deal with Mr. Stevens, but suggested that they might move swiftly as they did after the news last summer that Senator Larry E. Craig, Republican of Idaho, had pleaded guilty to disorderly conduct, a misdemeanor, for allegedly soliciting an undercover police officer in an airport bathroom in Minneapolis.

Mr. Craig was stripped of his leadership positions and announced that he would resign, but then sought unsuccessfully to retract his guilty plea. He ultimately decided to remain in the Senate to complete his current term at the end of this year.

An investigation of Mr. Stevens by the Senate Ethics Committee is inevitable, but the chairwoman of the committee, Senator Babara Boxer, Democrat of California, said it would defer to the criminal authorities to complete their investigation first.

One of only a few World War II veterans left in the Senate, Mr. Stevens grew up in Indiana and California and moved to Alaska in 1950, before it was a state, according to the Almanac of American Politics.

He first ran for the Senate in 1962, losing to Ernest Gruening, a Democrat. In 1968, Mr. Stevens was appointed by Gov. Walter Hickel to fill a vacant seat in the Senate, and has been re-elected six times since then.

He is by far the most prominent figure to be charged in a four-year-old political corruption investigation in Alaska, which has resulted in seven convictions, among them three state lawmakers and the chief of staff of former Gov. Frank H. Murkowski.

The case, which began as an inquiry into VECO’s relationship with Alaska lawmakers, is still under way and several well-known figures in the state are said to remain under scrutiny, among them Representative Don Young, a Republican, and Mr. Stevens’s son, Ben, former president of the State Senate. Both have denied any wrongdoing.

The indictment was announced by Matthew Friedrich, the acting head of the Justice Department’s criminal division. He said at a news conference that politics played no role in the decision to bring the case or the timing of the charges.

The indictment was announced one day after a scathing inspector general’s report that said that senior Justice Department aides had improperly asked political questions to fill nonpolitical jobs under former Attorney General Alberto R. Gonzales.

The charges against Mr. Stevens said that, beginning in the spring and summer of 2000, Mr. Stevens and Mr. Allen discussed whether VECO could renovate Mr. Stevens’s residence in Girdwood, Alaska.

After that conversation, and over the next six years, Mr. Stevens is accused of accepting from VECO and Mr. Allen more than $250,000 in free labor, construction work like flooring, heating, plumbing and installation of electrical wiring and gutters, and a Viking gas grill.

    Senator Charged in Scheme to Hide Oil Firm Gifts, NYT, 30.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/30/washington/30stevens.html?hp






The Long Run

After 2000, McCain Learned to Work Levers of Power


July 21, 2008
The New York Times


Senator John McCain was all but a sworn enemy of Senator Trent Lott, the former Republican leader.

Mr. Lott had quashed Mr. McCain’s most cherished legislative goals. And, worse, Mr. McCain believed that in the 2000 Republican primaries, Mr. Lott had spread rumors about his colleague’s mental stability on behalf of his rival for the nomination, George W. Bush.

But when Mr. Bush turned on Mr. Lott in 2002, helping to push him out of the leadership over a racially insensitive remark, Mr. McCain saw a shared grievance and found an opportunity. He leapt to Mr. Lott’s defense, urging Republicans to stick by him.

“He said, ‘I know how you are feeling; you have been treated unfairly,’ ” Mr. Lott recalled. “I am a grateful guy, and I will never forget it.” A legendary dealmaker with a deep store of chits, Mr. Lott became a valuable ally to his former foe, backing him in public debates and less visible Senate intrigues.

Their alliance was just one step in the political reinvention of Mr. McCain, now the presumptive Republican presidential nominee. Previously a marginal player better known for heckling the Senate than for influencing it, Mr. McCain returned from the 2000 campaign with a new national reputation and a new political sophistication.

Over the next eight years, he mastered the art of political triangulation — variously teaming up with Mr. Lott against the president or the new Republican leaders, with Democrats against Republicans, and with the president against the Democrats — to become perhaps the chamber’s most influential member.

“He was looked upon as the magic ingredient in any legislative deal; the addition of John McCain was going to greatly improve its chances of success,” said Ross K. Baker, a Rutgers University political scientist who studies the Senate.

Former Senator Tom Daschle, the Democratic leader until 2004, agreed. With the possible exception of the two party leaders, he said, “I can’t think of many senators more influential.” Mr. Daschle said that Mr. McCain’s power easily surpassed that of Mr. Lott’s successor as leader, Bill Frist, because many senators discounted Mr. Frist as the White House’s agent.

To partisans on either side, Mr. McCain’s path could be puzzling, even infuriating. On the defining issue of the Iraq war, he hammered both sides: the White House for its execution of the conflict and the Democrats for their opposition. On immigration, he joined the Democrats and the White House to battle his own party. And to the Republican leaders, he was a serial turncoat on other domestic matters, marching at the head of a Democratic column into fights over tax cuts, campaign finance restrictions, Alaskan oil drilling, access to generic drugs, gun-show sales, pollution caps, the 9/11 commission and the use of torture.

“I returned to the Senate with greater influence than before I ran, and I used that influence to work with senators on both sides of the aisle,” Mr. McCain said in an e-mail message. “I don’t believe in hoarding political capital just for the sake of possessing it.”

Now his Senate record itself is up for debate in the presidential race. Mr. McCain’s supporters argue that he demonstrated the kind of bipartisan bridge-building that his Democratic rival for president, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, has often pledged but seldom displayed. Democrats counter that Mr. McCain, of Arizona, was a fickle gadfly who ultimately traded his independence to pander to the right, in particular by pledging this year to retain tax cuts he once faulted as favors to the rich.

“You couldn’t tell which John McCain would come to work on any given day,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, a Democrat close to Mr. Obama.

Mr. McCain’s friends say his record reflects his singular personality — a reverence for principle and a willingness to change, a drive to solve problems and an impulse for mischief. But they agree that a very different John McCain returned from his first presidential race to become a central player in almost every high-profile debate of the Bush administration.

“John McCain prior to 2000 would not be known for his legislative skills or achievements,” said John Weaver, a former McCain adviser. “He voted with his party, and people ran to him on national security. But being the swing guy after 2000, he knew his turf was valuable, and he could use it to achieve things.”

He learned how to play the game, said Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska. “He is a lot more savvy than a lot of people realize — targeted, tactical, strategic — and sometimes only he knows what his real objective is,” Mr. Nelson said.

Once, a Party Loyalist

Mr. McCain, 71, acquired the sobriquet “maverick” about a decade ago. When he was first elected to the Senate in 1986, after two terms in the House, he was in the mainstream of his party. He even made a credible, though unsuccessful, run for a party leadership post.

But his popularity did not last. First, there was his “truculent nature,” as he calls it. His Republican colleagues call him aggressive, brusque and abrasive. He later adopted the habit of publicly scolding other senators about their special privileges, from pet spending projects to airport parking spots. What Mr. Lott called his “cuddling up” to the Democrats has further strained Mr. McCain’s relations with Republicans.

“I suppose over the last 10 years he has passed more significant legislation than any senator around,” said Senator Judd Gregg, a conservative New Hampshire Republican frequently at odds with Mr. McCain. “But that doesn’t necessarily entail being liked.”

Some call him aloof. Former Senator Lincoln Chafee, a soft-spoken Rhode Island Republican, said, “I always imagined that I was the plebe and he was the senior at the Naval Academy: you knew your rank and you were supposed to respect that.” (Mr. Chafee is now supporting Mr. Obama.)

But his heroism as a prisoner of war in Vietnam has given Mr. McCain a special prestige, and he has made a point of cultivating junior members in the Senate, whether Democrats like Russ Feingold of Wisconsin or Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine, unaccustomed to the attention of a senior lawmaker. “He is smart enough to know that in the Senate every vote counts the same,” said Ms. Collins, now a close friend.

Before the 2008 campaign heated up, Mr. McCain would go to dinner about twice a month in Washington — he favors spicy Vietnamese food, the movie “Borat” and trading jokes about colleagues — with a small group of Republicans that included Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Senator Michael DeWine of Ohio and the actor and former Senator Fred D. Thompson (who briefly jumped into this year’s Republican primaries himself). Entertaining guests at his property in Sedona, Ariz., he invariably drags them for long walks to indulge his passion for bird watching. “If you took all the people at Gitmo, put them in the cabin for a weekend and made them listen to John talk about the birds, they would all spill their guts,” Mr. Graham said.

Mr. McCain’s friends say his ideology has always been ad hoc — limited-government conservative by default, but open to expanding government authority if the goal seemed important. But aside from pushing various campaign finance overhauls, he was a reliable Reaganite until around 1998 — his first big break from his party — when the Republican leaders chose him to negotiate a bill that would address tobacco lawsuits and finance public health programs.

As conservatives outmaneuvered him on the floor, Mr. McCain lashed out at his fellow Republicans, accusing them of turning a cold shoulder to children’s health. The Democrats rose in a standing ovation.

Three years later — the Monday after President Bush’s first inauguration — Mr. McCain held a news conference that amounted to a declaration of his independence from either political party.

He would respect the new president’s agenda, but not because he was a Republican, Mr. McCain said. He would have respected a Democrat’s just as much. “But,” he added, “I also have a mandate.”

He returned from the 2000 campaign full of new motivations. Although he had spent 18 years in Congress, Mr. McCain’s advisers say the campaign was his first face-to-face confrontation with domestic issues like global warming and health insurance costs.

“He had been in the Navy or the Senate his whole career, and he hadn’t had a lot of chance to get out there and find out what the American people are thinking,” said former Senator Warren B. Rudman, Republican of New Hampshire, who said he had watched Mr. McCain revise his views as he moved through scores of town-hall-style meetings.

Mr. McCain’s assessment of his political prospects had changed, too. The 2000 Republican primary had cemented Mr. McCain’s maverick image. He had made overhauling campaign finance the cornerstone of his campaign and started attacking upper-income tax cuts, corporate greed and Christian conservatives. Returning to the Senate, Mr. McCain wondered if he had alienated his former base.

Crossover Appeal

John Zogby, a pollster Mr. McCain often consults, told him that the race had inverted his political profile: Democrats and independents liked him more than Republicans did. But he was also one of the most popular politicians in the country, and his biography as a war hero had kept a solid floor under his conservative support.

“It suggested that he would be able to finesse conservatives,” Mr. Zogby recalled in an interview. He told Mr. McCain that continuing to buck his party would be “very astute.” (The 2008 primary was a close call, but Mr. Zogby argues that he was vindicated: Mr. McCain won.)

Mr. McCain needed little encouragement. He still smoldered over what he considered the dirty 2000 primary, especially the slander campaign he believed had been waged against him. He had been liberated from party loyalty, Mr. Graham said.

“There was almost a sense of freedom,” Mr. Graham said. “It reinforced his impulse: I am going to be me.”

Mr. McCain’s friends say the senator has always been drawn toward conflict. On Senate breaks, one of his favorite pastimes is official travel to war zones. Within days of returning from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan, Mr. McCain rushed up to tell Ms. Collins, “Did you see there is still trouble in Sudan? We need to go there next!” she recalled.

Mr. Graham said, imitating Mr. McCain’s husky, hurried voice, “If there is a ‘500 people killed in government protests’ article in the paper, John will always call me up: ‘We need to go there! Sounds like it’s interesting!’ ”

Now a similar impulse drew Mr. McCain into Senate battles as well, Mr. Graham said. “The man will run across the street to get in a good fight,” he said.

Mr. McCain wasted no time. For most of his career, he had kept his distance from Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, wary of his record of pulling Republicans into grand compromises. “I have watched other people fall under that guy’s sway, but I am not going to,” Mr. McCain used to tell his aides, recalled Mark Salter, his chief of staff.

After the 2000 election, however, Mr. McCain pulled up a chair at Mr. Kennedy’s desk near the back of the Senate floor. “Ted,” Mr. McCain said, according to a Kennedy aide present, “patients’ bill of rights, I want to work with you.”

Mr. McCain had opposed the proposals, which would make it easier for patients to sue insurers, and the White House promised a veto. But soon he was huddling with Mr. Kennedy and the bill’s other sponsor, Senator John Edwards of North Carolina, each morning, plotting strategy.

“He would say, ‘O.K., this guy in my caucus is a lawyer and he is going to say this. Who do we got that is a lawyer to talk to him?” Mr. Salter said. “ ‘Who do we got? Who do we got?’ It is like laying out a battle plan.” When the bill passed with nine Republican votes, Democrats credited Mr. McCain. (The measure died in conference with the House, though.)

Stepping Over Party Lines

Soon he was cooperating with the Democrats on so many issues that he made a habit of stopping by Mr. Daschle’s office “to tell me what was going on in his caucus, give me advice, give me reports on a lot of the things he was working on, how the negotiations were going,” Mr. Daschle said. “Of all the Republicans with whom I worked, he was the most cooperative.”

When Mr. Daschle and Mr. Kennedy tried to persuade Mr. McCain to switch parties, Mr. McCain listened and his advisers spread the word around. Speculation about whether he would defect increased his leverage with Republican leaders.

Mr. McCain collected on debts earned during the election, too. He refused to stump for Republicans unless they agreed to support his “reform agenda,” and he boasted that his unwillingness to campaign for Senator Slade Gorton of Washington contributed to his narrow loss in 2000.

After their rapprochement, Mr. Lott often began supporting Mr. McCain, too: on a campaign finance rule, during the immigration debate and in criticizing Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary. “When people looked up and saw those two working together, a lot of them were shocked,” Mr. DeWine said.

Other times, however, Mr. McCain used his bipartisan appeal to put pressure on his Democratic friends on behalf of the White House. “He was a tremendous resource,” said Nicholas E. Calio, a former White House legislative liaison to the Senate, adding that Mr. McCain helped round up Democratic votes for trade agreements, domestic security measures and the Iraq war.

Mr. McCain lobbied his Democratic friends to vote to authorize the invasion, even berating them, several Democrats said. “He was very forceful,” said former Senator Bob Graham, Democrat of Florida. “He told me the issue was over: ‘We ought to get on with the vote, stop this meaningless pontification.’ ”

When Mr. McCain campaigned for President Bush’s re-election in 2004, Democrats accused him of hypocrisy. “After what happened to him eight years ago and some of the statements he made, I couldn’t quite understand the things he was doing, the appearances he was making with the president,” Mr. Durbin said.

But Mr. McCain was still a frequent impediment to the White House. In 2005 and 2006, for example, he spearheaded battles to prod the administration to sign laws banning the use of torture on military detainees. His talks with Vice President Dick Cheney on the subject degenerated into shouting matches, aides on both sides say. He felt that negotiating about torture with Mr. Cheney “was like negotiating bank reform with Bonnie and Clyde,” Mr. Weaver, the former McCain adviser, said.

Other times, Mr. McCain worked behind the scenes. In 2005, Mr. Frist, then the Republican leader, staked his reputation on a standoff with Senate Democrats over several of the president’s judicial nominees that escalated into threats about rewriting Senate rules or shutting down all debate.

Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Lott publicly supported Mr. Frist. But both also had an interest in his failure, Mr. McCain because Mr. Frist was a potential presidential rival and Mr. Lott because he had taken his leadership post.

Mr. McCain, who had never taken much interest in judicial confirmations or Senate traditions, set out to lead a bipartisan group that could find middle ground. Participating risked the wrath of partisans and interest groups on either side, and the senators involved pledged confidentiality.

But several now say that the Democrats involved negotiated on behalf of their leaders, and that the Republicans, including Mr. McCain, worked against Mr. Frist.

Mr. Lott publicly disavowed the effort. But he helped recruit some Republican allies to complete the group, and helped fashion the ultimate deal, according to several involved.

The group, dubbed the Gang of 14, emerged from Mr. McCain’s office with a deal to confirm some of the judges and stop Mr. Frist from rewriting the rules. Editorials across the country hailed Mr. McCain as a champion of bipartisanship and moderation. And political analysts began to write off Mr. Frist.

Mr. Lott, who declined to comment about his role in the Frist episode and the details of the 2000 race, commended Mr. McCain. “I don’t want to call it Machiavellian, but it was quite a snooker play,” he said.

Mr. Weaver was more grandiose. “Lyndon Johnson would be proud of that move,” he said.

    After 2000, McCain Learned to Work Levers of Power, NYT, 21.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/21/us/politics/21mccain.html?hp






By Large Margin, Senate Votes to Help Homeowners and Overhaul Loan Agencies


July 12, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Senate overwhelmingly approved a package of housing bills on Friday, including a rescue plan aimed at helping hundreds of thousands of borrowers avoid foreclosure and a regulatory overhaul for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the battered mortgage finance companies.

The new rules include the creation of an independent regulator with broad authority to order the companies to raise capital and even, if necessary, to put one or both in receivership and assume control of their operations.

The bill now returns to the House, where related tax provisions and other details need to be worked out. Supporters of the Senate bill urged the House to approve the bill quickly.

“It’s time for us to do something in a real way to move this government forward on the side of homeowners and on the side of the economy,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin, Democrat of Illinois. “Let’s really move forward as quickly as we can to give confidence to the American people.”

The Senate approved the bill 63 to 5 in the third in a series of procedural votes. The House approved its version in May, and though the White House has issued a formal veto threat — and repeated it on Friday — administration officials have indicated that a compromise was likely.

Previous votes on the housing bills showed that a presidential veto could easily be overridden.

Until the shares of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac went into free fall this week, the main focus of the legislation was the foreclosure rescue plan, which aims to help as many as 400,000 troubled borrowers refinance with more affordable, 30-year fixed-rate loans insured by the Federal Housing Administration.

But this week, there was renewed attention on the provisions in the bill that overhaul regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, government-chartered mortgage finance companies.

Under the legislation, an independent agency called the Federal Home Finance Agency would be created to oversee the mortgage companies. Its director would also be a member of a four-person oversight board, along with the Treasury secretary, the secretary of housing and urban development and the chairman of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the banking committee, said that the new regulator could require the companies to raise new capital and clarify their two-part mission: to provide a return for investors and to provide market liquidity and capital to expand homeownership.

“That dual mission, you want to make sure that is going to be pursued,” Mr. Dodd said. “And a strong regulator helps you get there.”

Mr. Dodd hailed the vote on Friday as a crucial step and praised the measure as “the most important housing legislation in a generation.”

The foreclosure rescue bill would authorize the housing administration to insure up to $300 billion in refinanced mortgages, enabling borrowers now saddled with unaffordable loans to refinance. To take part in the program, lenders would first have to agree to lower each homeowner’s debt obligation to 90 percent of a home’s current value.

Approval in the Senate came after two weeks of procedural wrangling, forced by Senate Republicans, over unrelated measures. As a result, Democrats were forced to schedule votes on Friday afternoon. Votes on Fridays are rare because most lawmakers would prefer to be in their home states or on their way there.

The five opposing votes came from Western Republican senators: John Thune of South Dakota; Jon Kyl of Arizona; Michael D. Crapo of Idaho; and Michael B. Enzi and John Barrasso, both of Wyoming.

There has been little doubt among members of both parties that the housing legislation would be approved before Congress left for its summer recess in August. But even as the housing market has continued to decline, lawmakers have not been in much of a rush.

Barney Frank, the Massachusetts Democrat who is a main author of the housing package, said on Thursday that he hoped to get House approval as quickly as possible and return the bill to the Senate, where it would need one final vote before being sent to the White House for President Bush’s signature.

In its statement on Friday reiterating its veto threat, the White House said it remained concerned about a provision providing nearly $4 billion in grants to local governments for the purchase and rehabilitation of foreclosed property.

David Stout contributed reporting.

    By Large Margin, Senate Votes to Help Homeowners and Overhaul Loan Agencies, NYT, 12.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/12/washington/12housing.html?ref=business






Senate Approves Bill to Broaden Wiretap Powers


July 10, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Senate gave final approval on Wednesday to a major expansion of the government’s surveillance powers, handing President Bush one more victory in a series of hard-fought clashes with Democrats over national security issues.

The measure, approved by a vote of 69 to 28, is the biggest revamping of federal surveillance law in 30 years. It includes a divisive element that Mr. Bush had deemed essential: legal immunity for the phone companies that cooperated in the National Security Agency wiretapping program he approved after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The vote came two and a half years after public disclosure of the wiretapping program set off a fierce national debate over the balance between protecting the country from another terrorist strike and ensuring civil liberties. The final outcome in Congress, which opponents of the surveillance measure had conceded for weeks, seemed almost anticlimactic in contrast.

Mr. Bush, appearing in the Rose Garden just after his return from Japan, called the vote “long overdue.” He promised to sign the measure into law quickly, saying it was critical to national security and showed that “even in an election year, we can come together and get important pieces of legislation passed.”

Even as his political stature has waned, Mr. Bush has managed to maintain his dominance on national security issues in a Democratic-led Congress. He has beat back efforts to cut troops and financing in Iraq, and he has won important victories on issues like interrogation tactics and military tribunals in the fight against terrorism.

Debate over the surveillance law was the one area where Democrats had held firm in opposition. House Democrats went so far as to allow a temporary surveillance measure to expire in February, leading to a five-month impasse and prompting accusations from Mr. Bush that the nation’s defenses against another strike by Al Qaeda had been weakened.

But in the end Mr. Bush won out, as administration officials helped forge a deal between Republican and Democratic leaders that included almost all the major elements the White House wanted. The measure gives the executive branch broader latitude in eavesdropping on people abroad and at home who it believes are tied to terrorism, and it reduces the role of a secret intelligence court in overseeing some operations.

Supporters maintained that the plan includes enough safeguards to protect Americans’ civil liberties, including reviews by several inspectors general. There is nothing to fear in the bill, said Senator Christopher S. Bond, the Missouri Republican who was a lead negotiator, “unless you have Al Qaeda on your speed dial.”

But some Democratic opponents saw the deal as “capitulation” to White House pressure by fellow Democrats.

“I urge my colleagues to stand up for the rule of law and defeat this bill,” Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin, said Wednesday as the outcome was all but assured.

The final plan, which overhauls the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed by Congress in 1978 in the wake of Watergate, reflected both political reality and legal practicality, supporters said.

Wiretapping orders approved by secret orders under the previous version of the surveillance law were set to begin expiring in August unless Congress acted. Heading into their political convention in Denver next month and on to the November Congressional elections, many Democrats were wary of handing the Republicans a potent political weapon.

The issue put Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, in a particularly precarious spot. He had long opposed giving legal immunity to the phone companies that took part in the N.S.A.’s wiretapping program, even threatening a filibuster during his run for the nomination. But on Wednesday, he ended up voting for what he called “an improved but imperfect bill” after backing a failed attempt earlier in the day to strip the immunity provision from the bill through an amendment.

Mr. Obama’s decision last month to reverse course angered some ardent supporters, who organized an Internet drive to influence his vote. And his position came to symbolize the continuing difficulties that Democrats have faced in striking a position on national security issues even against a weakened president. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, who had battled Mr. Obama for the nomination, voted against the bill.

Senator John McCain, the likely Republican presidential nominee, was campaigning in Ohio and did not vote, though he has consistently supported the immunity plan.

Support from key Democrats ensured passage of the measure.

Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who leads the intelligence committee and helped broker the deal, said modernizing the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act was essential to give intelligence officials the technology tools they need to deter another attack. But he said the plan “was made even more complicated by the president’s decision, in the aftermath of Sept. 11, 2001, to go outside of FISA rather than work with Congress to fix it.”

He was referring to the secret program approved by Mr. Bush weeks after the Sept. 11 attacks that allowed the N.S.A, in a sharp legal and operational shift, to wiretap the international communications of Americans suspected of links to Al Qaeda without first getting court orders. The program was disclosed in December 2005 by The New York Times.

As Congress repeatedly tried to find a legislative solution, the main stumbling block was Mr. Bush’s insistence on legal immunity for the phone companies. The program itself ended in January 2007, when the White House agreed to bring it under the auspices of the FISA court, but more than 40 lawsuits continued churning through federal courts, charging AT&T, Verizon and other major carriers with violating customers’ privacy by conducting wiretaps at the White House’s direction without court orders.

The final deal, which passed the House on June 20, effectively ends those lawsuits. It includes a narrow review by a district court to determine whether the companies being sued received formal requests or directives from the administration to take part in the program. The administration has already acknowledged those directives exist. Once such a finding is made, the lawsuits “shall be promptly dismissed,” the bill says. Republican leaders say they regard the process as a mere formality to protect the phone carriers from liability.

Lawyers involved in the suits against the phone companies promised to challenge the immunity provision in federal court.

“The law itself is a massive intrusion into the due process rights of all of the phone subscribers who would be a part of the suit,” said Bruce Afran, a New Jersey lawyer representing several hundred plaintiffs suing Verizon and other companies. “It is a violation of the separation of powers. It’s presidential election-year cowardice. The Democrats are afraid of looking weak on national security.”

The legislation also expands the government’s power to invoke emergency wiretapping procedures. While the N.S.A. would be allowed to seek court orders for broad groups of foreign targets, the law creates a new seven-day period for directing wiretaps at foreigners without a court order in “exigent” circumstances if government officials assert that important national security information would be lost. The law also expands to seven days, from three, the period for emergency wiretaps on Americans without a court order if the attorney general certifies there is probable cause to believe the target is linked to terrorism.

Democrats pointed to some concessions they had won. The final bill includes a reaffirmation that the FISA law is the “exclusive” means of conducting intelligence wiretaps — a provision that Representative Nancy Pelosi of California, the House speaker, and other Democrats insisted would prevent Mr. Bush or any future president from evading court scrutiny in the way they say that the N.S.A. program did.

David Stout contributed reporting.

    Senate Approves Bill to Broaden Wiretap Powers, NYT, 10.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/10/washington/10fisa.html






Jesse Helms, Conservative Force in the Senate, Dies at 86


July 5, 2008
The New York Times


Jesse Helms, the former North Carolina Senator whose courtly manner and mossy drawl barely masked a hard-edged conservatism that opposed civil rights, gay rights, foreign aid and modern art, died early Friday. He was 86.

Mr. Helms’s former chief of staff, James W.C. Broughton, said that the senator died at the Mayview Convalescent Center in Raleigh, where he had lived for the last several years. Mr. Helms had been in “a period of declining health” recently, Mr. Broughton said.

In a 52-year political career that ended with his retirement from the Senate in 2002, Mr. Helms became a beacon for the right wing of American politics, a lightning rod for the left, and, often, a mighty pain for Presidents whatever their political leaning.

Ronald Reagan, a friend who could thank Mr. Helms for critical campaign help, once described him as a “thorn in my side.” Mr. Helms was known for taking on anyone, even leaders of his own party, who strayed from his idea of ideological purity.

“I didn’t come to Washington to be a yes man for any President, Democrat or Republican,” he said in an interview in 1989. “I didn’t come to Washington to get along and win any popularity contests.”

Perhaps his most visible accomplishments in the Senate came two decades apart. One was a 1996 measure that tightened trade sanctions against the Marxist government of Fidel Castro in Cuba. The other, a 1973 amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act, prevented American money from going to international family planning organizations that, in his words, “provide or promote” abortion. He also introduced amendments to reduce or eliminate funds for foreign aid, welfare programs and the arts.

David A. Keene, chairman of the American Conservative Union, said recently that Mr. Helms’s contribution to the conservative movement was “incredibly important.”

For one thing, he said, Mr. Helms was alert to technological change, especially the importance of direct mail, and readily signed fund-raising letters that helped conservative organizations get started.

Mr. Helms was also instrumental in keeping Mr. Reagan’s presidential campaign alive in 1976 when it was broke and limping after a series of defeats in the Republican primaries.

And in the Senate, Mr. Keene said, Mr. Helms was a rallying point for conservatives. As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, he supported Mr. Reagan on issues like aid to the Nicaraguan Contras. “Without Jesse, it would have been hard for Reagan to hold the line,” he said.

Mr. Helms saw himself as a simple man — he even used the word “redneck” to describe himself — protecting simple American values from the onslaught of permissiveness, foreign influence and moral relativism. For 30 years he cut a familiar figure on the Senate floor, typically wearing horn-rimmed glasses, black wing tip shoes and, on the lapels of his gray suits, American flag and Free Masonry pins.

He liked his art uncomplicated.

“The self-proclaimed, self-anointed art experts would scoff and say, ‘Oooh, terrible,’ but I like beautiful things, not modern art,” he told The New York Times in 1989, during a pitched battle over federal subsidies to the arts. “I can’t even figure out that sculpture in the Hart Building.” He was referring to an Alexander Calder mobile.

In the 1980’s he took on the National Endowment for the Arts for subsidizing art that he found offensive, chiefly that of the photographer Robert Mapplethorpe, who explored gay themes in some of his work, and of the artist Andres Serrano, who depicted a crucifix submerged in urine. He later led an ill-fated attempt to take over CBS, exhorting conservatives to buy up stock in order to stop what he saw as a liberal bias in its news reporting.

He was also well known for holding up votes on treaties and appointments to win a point. His willingness to block the business of the Senate or the will of Presidents earned him the sobriquet “Senator No” — a label he relished.

In campaigns and in the Senate, Mr. Helms stood out in both his words and his tactics.

He fought bitterly against Federal aid for AIDS research and treatment, saying the disease resulted from “unnatural” and “disgusting” homosexual behavior.

“Nothing positive happened to Sodom and Gomorrah,” he said, “and nothing positive is likely to happen to America if our people succumb to the drumbeats of support for the homosexual lifestyle.”

In his last year in the Senate, he decided to support AIDS measures in Africa, where heterosexual transmission of the disease is most common.

Trailing in a tough re-election fight in 1990 against a black opponent, Harvey Gantt, the former mayor of Charlotte, Mr. Helms unveiled a nakedly racial campaign ad in which a pair of hands belonging to a white job-seeker crumpled a rejection slip as an announcer explained that the job had been given to an unqualified member of a minority. Mr. Helms went on to victory.

In 1994, angered at President Clinton, Mr. Helms suggested in print that if Mr. Clinton was to visit North Carolina, “He’d better bring a bodyguard.” He later said the remark had been “a mistake.”

His bruising style and right-wing politics won him many friends in his home state and across the nation, but he also created a legion of enemies. Millions of dollars were raised outside North Carolina both from those who flocked to his ideological banner and from those who ached to see him defeated. He never won more than 55 percent of the vote in five campaigns for the Senate.

“He was a very polarizing politician,” said Ferrell Guillory, a veteran North Carolina journalist. “He was not a consensus builder. He didn’t want everybody to vote for him. He just wanted enough.”

But as tough as he could be in the political theater, Mr. Helms could exhibit a softer, warmer, even impish side in his personal dealings, even with political adversaries.

In 1963, after 21 years of marriage, Mr. Helms and his wife, Dorothy, adopted a disabled child, Charles, after they read a newspaper article in which the child, who was nine at the time, plaintively said that he wanted a mother and father for Christmas.

Claude Sitton, the editor of The Raleigh News and Observer, a newspaper whose coverage and editorials gave Mr. Helms fits, was startled when Mr. Helms sent him a gift at his retirement party. It was a fine bay horse. “This is Jesse,” said a sign hung around the horse’s neck. “You been riding Jesse for years. Don’t stop now.”

He welcomed teen-agers. Even when lobbyists could not get in to see him, high school students could. His office once calculated that he had met with 170,000 teen-agers in his 30 years in the Senate.

Jesse Alexander Helms Jr. was born to Jesse Sr. and Ethel Mae Helms on Oct. 18, 1921 in Monroe, N.C., where his father was the chief of police. A hamlet in the North Carolina Piedmont, Monroe embodied the kind of small-town virtue that he would vigorously promote throughout his career. “Everybody understood everybody else,” he said of his hometown. “Everybody understood that it was important not to do certain things, and that, if you did them, you would pay for it.”

For Mr. Helms, the orderliness of the small town even encompassed racial segregation; as a child, he saw it not as a great evil but as an accepted part of his world. Mr. Helms always insisted that journalism had been his first choice for a career. He quit Wake Forest College before he graduated to become a reporter for The Raleigh Times. In 1942, he married the former Dorothy Coble, of Raleigh, whom he had met at Wake Forest. They went on to have three children.

He is survived by his wife, Dorothy, and three children, Jane Helms Knox of Raleigh; Nancy Helms Grigg of Chapel Hill, and Charles Helms, of Winston-Salem, N.C. He is also survived by seven grandchildren and one great-grandchild.

After serving in the Navy in World War II, Mr. Helms became news and program director at WRAL, a radio station in Raleigh, from 1948 to 1951. It was at WRAL that he cut his political teeth, covering the 1950 race for the Senate between Frank Porter Graham, the former President of the University of North Carolina, and Willis Smith, the former Speaker of the North Carolina House. The race was nasty. At one point, Willis supporters passed out handbills bearing a doctored photograph depicting Mr. Graham’s wife dancing with a black man.

Though his station covered the campaign, Mr. Helms also served as an unofficial adviser to the Willis campaign. He denied having anything to do with the handbills, or that they were even printed by the campaign. Mr. Willis won, and Mr. Helms went with him to Washington to work in his Senatorial office.

In 1953, however, he left Washington to become the chairman of the North Carolina Bankers Association. Four years later he was elected to the Raleigh City Council and served on it until 1961.

From 1960 to 1972 he did political commentary on WRAL radio, WRAL-TV and the Tobacco Radio Network. The stations’ statewide reach and Mr. Helms’s piquant commentaries against communism, the “lax” criminal justice system and welfare turned Mr. Helms into a household name, both loved and hated.

“Look carefully into the faces of the people participating,” he said in a 1968 editorial against anti-Vietnam war protests. “What you will see, for the most part, are dirty, unshaven, often crude young men and stringy-haired awkward young women who cannot attract attention any other way.”

In 1970 he switched his party registration to Republican from Democrat. Two years later, he upset the favorite by a convincing 120,000 votes to win a Senate seat.

The first few years as a Senator were difficult for Mr. Helms. He was overshadowed by the state’s better-known Senator, Sam Ervin. His conservative idol, President Richard M. Nixon, was driven from office by the Watergate scandal, and his vote against Nelson Rockefeller, President Ford’s choice for vice president, alienated him from the party’s leadership. He was in debt. He considered retiring after his first term, but changed his mind.

“I looked around the Senate and thought that it needed conservative votes and that it didn’t have too many,” he said.

Mr. Helms’s political longevity and his national stature were enhanced when he and his close political adviser, Tom Ellis, a North Carolina lawyer, started the North Carolina Congressional Club. Originally formed to help pay off Mr. Helms’s campaign debts from the 1972 campaign, the club, which later changed its name to the National Congressional Club, grew to be a political action committee and the centerpiece of a multimillion-dollar set of nonprofit corporations, tax-exempt foundations and political education committees. Compiling nationwide lists of donors, they raised money and dispersed it to support conservative causes.

The effort, in Mr. Ellis’s view, was necessary to counter the influence of the huge liberal-oriented foundations that dominated national politics at the time. But the effort also turned Mr. Helms into a national figure, with a power base outside the Republican party and with the ability to get his message out without having to rely on what he considered the liberal national news media.

Mr. Helms also showed his political power in 1976, when he threw his weight and political organization behind Mr. Reagan’s campaign for the Republican presidential nomination. Mr. Reagan had lost a string of primaries to the incumbent, Gerald R. Ford, and it was believed that if the President defeated him in North Carolina, Mr. Reagan’s bid, and perhaps his political career, would end.

Mr. Helms and his backers waged an all-out effort to win the North Carolina primary for Mr. Reagan, and it paid off: Mr. Reagan won. He ultimately lost the nomination that year, narrowly, to Mr. Ford. But because of his victory in North Carolina, he remained a force in Republican circles, winning the White House four years later and leading a conservative resurgence that Mr. Helms’ had helped to start.

    Jesse Helms, Conservative Force in the Senate, Dies at 86, NYT, 5.7.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/07/05/us/politics/00helms.html?hp







The Truth About the War


June 6, 2008
The New York Times


It took just a few months after the United States’ invasion of Iraq for the world to find out that Saddam Hussein had long abandoned his nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs. He was not training terrorists or colluding with Al Qaeda. The only real threat he posed was to his own countrymen.

It has taken five years to finally come to a reckoning over how much the Bush administration knowingly twisted and hyped intelligence to justify that invasion. On Thursday — after years of Republican stonewalling — a report by the Senate Intelligence Committee gave us as good a set of answers as we’re likely to get.

The report shows clearly that President Bush should have known that important claims he made about Iraq did not conform with intelligence reports. In other cases, he could have learned the truth if he had asked better questions or encouraged more honest answers.

The report confirms one serious intelligence failure: President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials were told that Iraq still had chemical and biological weapons and did not learn that these reports were wrong until after the invasion. But Mr. Bush and his team made even that intelligence seem more solid, more recent and more dangerous than it was.

The report shows that there was no intelligence to support the two most frightening claims Mr. Bush and his vice president used to sell the war: that Iraq was actively developing nuclear weapons and had longstanding ties to terrorist groups. It seems clear that the president and his team knew that that was not true, or should have known it — if they had not ignored dissenting views and telegraphed what answers they were looking for.

Over all, the report makes it clear that top officials, especially Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, knew they were not giving a full and honest account of their justifications for going to war.

The report was supported by only two of the seven Republicans on the 15-member Senate panel. The five dissenting Republicans first tried to kill it, and then to delete most of its conclusions. They finally settled for appending objections. The bulk of their criticisms were sophistry transparently intended to protect Mr. Bush and deny the public a full accounting of how he took America into a disastrous war.

The report documents how time and again Mr. Bush and his team took vague and dubious intelligence reports on Iraq’s weapons programs and made them sound like hard and incontrovertible fact.

“They continue to pursue the nuclear program they began so many years ago,” Mr. Cheney said on Aug. 26, 2002, adding that “we now know that Saddam has resumed his efforts to acquire nuclear weapons.”

On Oct. 7, 2002, Mr. Bush told an audience in Cincinnati that Iraq “is seeking nuclear weapons” and that “the evidence indicates that Iraq is reconstituting its nuclear weapons program.” Saddam Hussein, he said, “is moving ever closer to developing a nuclear weapon.”

Later, both men talked about Iraq trying to buy uranium in Africa and about the purchase of aluminum tubes that they said could only be used for a nuclear weapons program. They talked about Iraq having such a weapon in five years, then in three years, then in one.

If they had wanted to give an honest accounting of the intelligence on Iraq’s nuclear weapons, Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney would have said it indicated that Mr. Hussein’s nuclear weapons program had been destroyed years earlier by American military strikes.

As for Iraq’s supposed efforts to “reconstitute” that program, they would have had to say that reports about the uranium shopping and the aluminum tubes were the extent of the evidence — and those claims were already in serious doubt when Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney told the public about them. That would not have been nearly as persuasive, of course, as Mr. Bush’s infamous “mushroom cloud” warning.

The report said Mr. Bush was justified in saying that intelligence analysts believed Iraq had chemical and biological weapons. But even then, he and his aides glossed over inconvenient facts — that the only new data on biological weapons came from a dubious source code-named Curveball and proved to be false.

Yet Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney persisted in talking as if there were ironclad proof of Iraq’s weapons and plans for global mayhem.

“Simply stated, there is no doubt that Saddam Hussein now has weapons of mass destruction. There is no doubt that he is amassing them to use them against our friends, against our allies and against us,” Mr. Cheney said on Aug. 29, 2002.

Actually, there was plenty of doubt — at the time — about that second point. According to the Senate report, there was no evidence that Mr. Hussein intended to use weapons of mass destruction against anyone, and the intelligence community never said there was.

The committee’s dissenting Republicans attempted to have this entire section of the report deleted — along with a conclusion that the administration misrepresented the intelligence when it warned of a risk that Mr. Hussein could give weapons of mass destruction to terrorist groups. They said Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney never used the word “intent” and were merely trying to suggest that Iraq “could” do those terrible things.

It’s hard to imagine that anyone drew that distinction after hearing Mr. Bush declare that “Saddam Hussein would like nothing more than to use a terrorist network to attack and to kill and leave no fingerprints behind.” Or when he said: “Each passing day could be the one on which the Iraqi regime gives anthrax or VX nerve gas or someday a nuclear weapon to a terrorist ally.”

The Senate report shows that the intelligence Mr. Bush had did not support those statements — or Mr. Rumsfeld’s that “every month that goes by, his W.M.D. programs are progressing, and he moves closer to his goal of possessing the capability to strike our population, and our allies, and hold them hostage to blackmail.”

Claims by Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld that Iraq had longstanding ties to Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups also were false, and the Senate committee’s report shows that the two men knew it, or should have.

We cannot say with certainty whether Mr. Bush lied about Iraq. But when the president withholds vital information from the public — or leads them to believe things that he knows are not true — to justify the invasion of another country, that is bad enough.

    The Truth About the War, NYT, 6.6.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/06/opinion/06fri1.html






Bush Overstated Iraq Evidence, Senators Report


June 6, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — A long-delayed Senate committee report endorsed by Democrats and some Republicans concluded that President Bush and his aides built the public case for war against Iraq by exaggerating available intelligence and by ignoring disagreements among spy agencies about Iraq’s weapons programs and Saddam Hussein’s links to Al Qaeda.

The report was released Thursday after years of partisan squabbling, and it represented the close of five years of investigations by the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence into the use, abuse and faulty assessments of intelligence leading to the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

That some Bush administration claims about the Iraqi threat turned out to be false is hardly new. But the report, based on a detailed review of public statements by Mr. Bush and other officials, was the most comprehensive effort to date to assess whether policy makers systematically painted a more dire picture about Iraq than was justified by the available intelligence.

The 170-page report accuses Mr. Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and other top officials of repeatedly overstating the Iraqi threat in the emotional aftermath of the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Its findings were endorsed by all eight committee Democrats and two Republicans, Senators Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.

In a statement accompanying the report, Senator John D. Rockefeller IV, the West Virginia Democrat who is chairman of the intelligence panel, said, “The president and his advisers undertook a relentless public campaign in the aftermath of the attacks to use the war against Al Qaeda as a justification for overthrowing Saddam Hussein.”

Dana Perino, the White House spokeswoman, on Thursday called the report a “selective view” and said that the Bush administration’s public statements were based on the same faulty intelligence given to Congress and endorsed by foreign intelligence services. Senator Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, the committee’s top Republican, called the report a “waste of committee time and resources.”

The presidential campaigns of Senators John McCain and Barack Obama had not responded by Thursday night to requests for comment on the Senate report.

The report on the prewar statements found that on some important issues, most notably on what was believed to be Iraq’s nuclear, biological and chemical weapons programs, the public statements from Mr. Bush, Mr. Cheney and other senior officials were generally “substantiated” by the best estimates at the time from American intelligence agencies. But it found that the administration officials’ statements usually did not reflect the intelligence agencies’ uncertainties about the evidence or the disputes among them.

In a separate report released Wednesday, the intelligence committee provided new details about a series of clandestine meetings in Rome and Paris between Pentagon officials and Iranian dissidents in 2001 and 2003. The meetings included discussions about possible covert actions to destabilize the government in Tehran, and were used by the Pentagon officials to glean information about rivalries in Iran and what was thought to be an Iranian “hit” team intending to attack American troops in Afghanistan, the report said.

The report concluded that Stephen J. Hadley, now the national security adviser, and Paul D. Wolfowitz, who was then the deputy defense secretary, “acted within their authorities” to send the Pentagon officials to Rome. But the report criticized the meetings as ill advised, and accused Mr. Hadley and Mr. Wolfowitz of keeping the State Department and intelligence agencies in the dark about the meetings, which the report portrayed as part of a rogue intelligence operation.

The two reports were the final parts of the committee’s so-called Phase 2 investigation of prewar intelligence on Iraq and related issues. The first phase of the inquiry, begun in the summer of 2003 and completed in July 2004, identified grave faults in the C.I.A.’s analysis of the threat posed by Mr. Hussein.

The report on Iraq on Thursday was especially critical of statements by the president and vice president linking Iraq to Al Qaeda and raising the possibility that Mr. Hussein might supply the terrorist group with unconventional weapons. “Representing to the American people that the two had an operational partnership and posed a single, indistinguishable threat was fundamentally misleading and led the nation to war on false premises,” Mr. Rockefeller wrote.

Mr. Bond and four other Republicans on the committee sharply dissented from the report’s findings and suggested that the investigation was a partisan smoke screen to obscure the real story: that the C.I.A. failed the Bush administration by delivering intelligence assessments to policy makers that have since been discredited.

In a detailed minority report, four of those Republicans accused Democrats of hypocrisy and of cherry picking, namely by refusing to include misleading public statements by top Democrats like Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton and Mr. Rockefeller.

As an example, they pointed to an October 2002 speech by Mr. Rockefeller, who declared to his Senate colleagues that he had arrived at the “inescapable conclusion that the threat posed to America by Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction is so serious that despite the risks, and we should not minimize the risks, we must authorize the president to take the necessary steps to deal with the threat.”

The report about the Bush administration’s public statements offers some new details about the intelligence information that was available to policy makers as they built a case for war. For instance, in September 2002 Donald H. Rumsfeld, then the defense secretary, told the Senate Armed Services Committee that “the Iraq problem cannot be solved by airstrikes alone,” because Iraqi chemical and biological weapons were so deeply buried that they could not be penetrated by American bombs.

Two months later, however, the National Intelligence Council wrote an assessment for Mr. Rumsfeld concluding that the Iraqi underground weapons facilities identified by the intelligence agencies “are vulnerable to conventional, precision-guided, penetrating munitions because they are not deeply buried.”

On Thursday, Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon, a Democratic member of the intelligence committee, said that Congress had never been told about the National Intelligence Council’s assessment.

    Bush Overstated Iraq Evidence, Senators Report, NYT, 6.6.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/06/06/world/middleeast/06intel.html?ref=opinion







The Senate’s Chance on Warming


May 28, 2008
The New York Times


For seven long years, President Bush has refused to confront the challenge of climate change and provide the leadership that this country and the world needs to reduce greenhouse gases and avoid the destructive consequences of global warming.

The Senate, and all three presidential candidates, have a chance to provide that leadership. Next week, the Senate is scheduled to take up a bill sponsored by John Warner, the Virginia Republican, and Joseph Lieberman, the Connecticut independent, that seeks aggressively to reduce emissions from all sectors of the economy.

Mr. Bush, predictably, opposes the bill. Add that to the slim Democratic majority and the complexity of the bill itself, and the chances of getting 60 filibuster-proof votes are modest at best. Even so, a majority vote would create positive momentum for the next Congress and send a strong signal to the country and the world that help on this issue is on the way.

For that reason, it is crucial for John McCain, Barack Obama and Hillary Rodham Clinton to show up and vote for this bill. All are on record as supporting mandatory cuts in greenhouse gases. A pressing campaign schedule is no excuse for not being counted on an issue this important to the nation’s future.

The Senate last addressed climate change in 2003 when it cast 43 votes in favor of a bill sponsored by Mr. McCain and Mr. Lieberman. This bill is even more ambitious. It calls for a 70 percent reduction in emissions by 2050 — requiring, in turn, a huge change in the way the country creates, delivers and uses energy. It imposes a price on carbon to make sure that happens. It also creates a compelling array of incentives for new and cleaner technologies and offers ways to combat long-neglected problems like deforestation.

Since that 2003 vote, the arguments for action have only gotten stronger. Mr. Bush has left a deep-seated impression that mandatory cuts in carbon dioxide would bankrupt the country or at the very least severely damage it by driving energy prices through the roof.

Every serious study shows that this is simply not true and that a well-designed, market-based program could yield positive economic gains — greater energy efficiency, technological innovation and reduced reliance on foreign oil. The same studies also make clear that the costs of inaction will dwarf the costs of acting now. The bill’s proponents must make sure that the economics of this debate are framed in a positive way.

The scientific case for action, strong five years ago, is even more persuasive now. Authoritative assessments from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, among other studies, have left little doubt that the world is heating up, that man-made emissions are largely responsible and that swift action is necessary to avoid widespread environmental damage.

Mr. Bush can no longer plausibly deny the science. What he continues to resist is the need for a full-throated response. The Senate can usher in a new era of American leadership when it convenes next week.

    The Senate’s Chance on Warming, NYT, 28.5.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/28/opinion/28wed1.html






Senate approves $165 billion in new war money


Thu May 22, 2008
12:48pm EDT


WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The Senate on Thursday approved an additional $165 billion to wage war in Iraq and Afghanistan for another year after lawmakers rejected proposed timetables for withdrawing American troops from Iraq.

A majority of senators approved the war-spending bill, which the Pentagon says it urgently needs to avoid civilian layoffs within months and the interruption of soldier paychecks.

The House of Representatives still must sign off on the legislation. Last week, it passed a drastically different bill that failed to provide any new money for the wars and would withdraw U.S. combat troops from Iraq by the end of 2009.

(Reporting by Richard Cowan, editing by Patricia Zengerle)

    Senate approves $165 billion in new war money, R, 22.5.2008, http://www.reuters.com/article/newsOne/idUSWAT00954920080522






Senators Challenge Oil Executives


May 21, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) — Top executives of the five largest oil companies tried to shift anger over high prices to a debate over supplies Wednesday, leading a senator to accuse them of acting like “hapless victims” while racking up record profits.

The senator, Patrick Leahy, a Vermont Democrat, told the executives that there is “a disconnect” between normal supply and demand and the skyrocketing price of oil — surpassing $130 a barrel even as the oil leaders testified — that the industry has yet to explain.

J. Stephen Simon, executive vice president of Exxon Mobil, said profits have been huge “in absolute terms” but must be viewed in the context of the vast scale of the industry. He also said high earnings are needed “in the current up cycle” to pay for investments in the long term when profits will be down.

“ ‘Current up cycle,’ that’s a nice term,” Mr. Leahy replied with sarcasm, “when people can’t afford to go to work” because gasoline is costing close to $4 a gallon.

He asked Mr. Simon what his total compensation was at Exxon, a company that made $40 billion last year. Mr. Simon replied it was $12.5 million annually.

Two other executives, John Lowe, executive vice president of ConocoPhillips, said he did not recall his total compensations as did Peter Robertson, vice chairman of Chevron. John Hofmeister, president of Shell Oil, said his was “about $2.2 million” but was not among the top five salaries at his company’s international parent. Robert Malone, chairman of BP America, put his compensation at “in excess of $2 million.”

Senator Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said Exxon’s annual profits increased from $11.5 billion to $40.6 billion in the past five years and there was no explanation for “why profits have gone up so high when the consumer is suffering so much.”

The five companies earned $36 billion in the first quarter of this year.

The executives, appearing under oath before the Senate Judiciary Committee, said they know high prices are hurting people, but they said the cause is not company profits but global supply and demand. And they sought to use their appearance before Congress to argue against new taxes on their industry.

“I urge you to resist these punitive policies,” Mr. Hofmeister said.

Senate Democrats recently announced an energy package that would tax “windfall” profits of the five companies. That might have public appeal, Mr. Lowe told the senators, but oil companies should not be viewed as “a scapegoat” for high prices.

That was not what many senators wanted to hear.

You have “just a litany of complaints that you’re all just hapless victims of a system,” Senator Dianne Feinstein, Democrat of California, told the executives. “Yet you rack up record profits ... quarter after quarter after quarter.”

“I’m sorry to sound like a victim — I don’t feel like a victim at all,” replied Mr. Robertson of Chevron, saying that he was proud of his company’s investments in future supply.

Senator Richard Durbin, Democrat of Illinois, accused the corporate executives of ignoring the plight of people suffering because of high energy prices. “Where is your corporate conscience?” he asked them.

“The issue is simple,” Mr. Leahy said. “People we represent are hurting, the companies you represent are profiting.”

    Senators Challenge Oil Executives, NYT, 21.5.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/business/apee-oil-congress.html?hp






Senate Panel Approves Housing Bill Compromise


May 21, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Senate Banking Committee on Tuesday approved compromise legislation aimed at helping hundreds of thousands of homeowners in danger of foreclosure by expanding the availability of government-insured mortgages.

The committee, by a vote of 19-2, approved a deal reached between Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs Committee, and Senator Richard C. Shelby of Alabama, the senior Republican on the banking committee.

The Bush administration, which previously said it would oppose legislation to rescue troubled homeowners, has suggested that it was willing to consider the Senate deal because lawmakers had found a way to eliminate any direct cost to taxpayers.

The Senate bill would create an affordable housing fund, financed by the government-sponsored mortgage buyers, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and that fund would be used in its first year to provide about $500 million for the foreclosure rescue effort.

Mr. Dodd said on Monday that his goal was to create a solid foundation underneath the nation’s depressed housing market.

“The primary goal here is to keep people in their homes, but also to establish a floor, a bottom to all this,” Mr. Dodd said Monday in announcing the compromise. The foreclosure aid is tied to legislation creating a new regulatory agency to tighten oversight of the government-sponsored lenders.

The House this month approved a similar foreclosure rescue bill by a vote of 266 to 154, which was cast mostly along party lines. Only 39 Republicans joined Democrats in supporting the bill, many of them from states hit hard by foreclosures.

Under both the House and Senate plans, lenders could limit their losses from potential foreclosures by agreeing to reduce the principal balances of loans at risk of default. The borrowers, many with expensive adjustable-rate loans, could then apply to refinance with a more stable, 30-year, fixed-rate mortgage insured by the government through the Federal Housing Administration.

In addition to paying interest and principal, the lender would pay a monthly insurance fee, which would go into a fund to protect taxpayers from losses.

The Congressional Budget Office has estimated that under the House bill, up to 500,000 mortgages would be refinanced over the next five years, at a cost to taxpayers of about $2.7 billion.

Mr. Dodd said that his bill included several changes, including shortening the life of the foreclosure assistance plan to three years, which would reduce the cost to about $500 million. He said that roughly the same number of mortgages could be refinanced.

That $500 million would be taken from a new affordable housing fund, which would collect slightly less than half a cent on every dollar of mortgages purchased by Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac.

That fund, proposed by Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, would continue to exist after the foreclosure assistance plan ended, with the money directed to creating affordable housing, including low-income rental housing.

Rhode Island has one of the highest foreclosure rates on subprime mortgages in the country.

A day before the House approved its foreclosure rescue plan, President Bush had flatly threatened to veto the bill, saying it would put taxpayer money at risk and “reward speculators and lenders.”

Many lawmakers interpreted the president’s remarks as a signal to Senate Republicans to kill the housing legislation before it could reach Mr. Bush’s desk.

But the White House reacted with a more agreeable tone to news of the deal between Mr. Dodd and Mr. . Shelby.

Tony Fratto, a spokesman for the White House, said the administration still needed to review the specific language in the bill. But, he said: “We appreciate and encourage the efforts to create a strong, independent regulator” for the government-sponsored lenders. “We’ll look forward to seeing the details of the bill,” he added, “especially provisions to expand programs of the Federal Housing Administration.”

A spokesman for Mr. Shelby said the senator was “optimistic that the White House will support what we’re doing.”

In a statement, Mr. Shelby said: “My primary consideration during negotiations on this package has been to protect the American taxpayer, and I believe we’ve made significant progress toward that goal on each component.”

Mr. Shelby had been particularly intent on tightening regulation of Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, and the deal with Mr. Dodd would create a new Federal Housing Finance Agency. The agency would oversee the lenders, which are private companies but are virtually assured of government assistance should they experience financial difficulty.

The regulator would be empowered to order an increase in capital in the event that the “safety and soundness” of the institutions were somehow at risk. In addition, the bill would set a new limit on so-called conforming loans, up to about $550,000 in the most expensive markets. The current conforming loan limit is $417,000, but was raised temporarily to $729,250 in the most expensive housing markets under the economic stimulus plan approved by Congress and signed by the president in February.

    Senate Panel Approves Housing Bill Compromise, NYT, 21.5.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/21/business/21housing.html






Defying President Bush, Senate Passes Farm Bill


May 15, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Senate voted overwhelmingly on Thursday to approve a five-year, $307 billion farm bill, sending it to President Bush for what is expected to be his futile veto.

The 81-to-15 Senate vote, like the 318-to-106 House vote on Wednesday, attracted broad bipartisan support and received far more than the two-thirds that would be needed to override Mr. Bush’s veto, should he keep his pledge to wield his pen.

Mr. Bush has said he wants to sharply limit government subsidies to farmers at a time of near-record commodity prices and soaring global demand for grain. Most legislators were not swayed by Mr. Bush’s description of the bill as bloated, expensive and packed with “a variety of gimmicks.”

Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the Democratic majority leader, defended the measure as “one of compromise.”

“That’s what legislation is all about,” Mr. Reid said just before the vote.

The bill includes a $10.3 billion increase in spending on nutrition programs, including food stamps, that supporters called “historic,” as well as increases for rural development and land conservation programs.

It also extends many existing federal subsidies that the president and other critics say are difficult to justify in such flush times for agricultural producers.

Mr. Bush had sought an adjusted gross income limit of $200,000 above which farmers could not qualify for any subsidy payments. The bill passed by the Senate and House, however, allows farm income of up to $750,000 and nonfarm income of $500,000 per individual.

That $750,000 limit applies to only one subsidy program, so-called direct payments that are disbursed based on land acreage and regardless of current market conditions or even whether the land is still actively farmed.

While Mr. Bush has long called for curtailing subsidy programs, the farm bill is viewed as vital legislation both across rural America and in impoverished urban centers.

Only two Democratic senators, Jack Reed and Sheldon Whitehouse, both of Rhode Island, voted against the bill. The 13 Republicans who voted against it included Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, a former chairman of the Agriculture Committee, who has called the measure fiscally irresponsible.

The three presidential candidates, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, both Democrats, and John McCain, Republican of Arizona, were absent. Senator Edward M. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, also did not vote.

The willingness of so many Republicans to break with the White House reflected both the strong support for the bill and a growing alarm among many lawmakers about their election prospects in November.

Mr. Bush himself made a similar political calculation in 2002, ultimately deciding to sign the farm bill that year even though he had strongly opposed it. A senior official at the time said the White House had concluded it would be “political suicide” in the midterm elections to veto the bill that year.

This year, though, Mr. Bush seems intent on refusing to sign the bill. He has criticized it for months, and on Wednesday he issued a forceful veto threat. He urged Congress to approve a one-year extension of current law, which he said would be better than adopting the new measure.

“Today’s farm economy is very strong, and that is something to celebrate,” he said. “It is also an appropriate time to better target subsidies and put forth real reform.” The bill, he said, “spends too much and fails to reform farm programs for the future.”

On Wednesday evening, Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman, reiterated the president’s opposition. “With its massive expansion of subsidies, special interest earmarks and budget gimmicks, this bill is wrong for American taxpayers,” he said. “The president will veto it.”

But in debate on the House floor on Wednesday, some Republicans were just as forceful in pledging to defy Mr. Bush should he use his veto pen.

“I know there is a veto threat from the White House,” said Representative Robin Hayes, Republican of North Carolina. “If the president decides to follow through I will be there voting to override him because we need this update for our nation’s policies.”

Should it reach that point, it would be only the second veto overriden during Mr. Bush’s presidency. The first was in November when Congress overwhelmingly rejected the president’s veto of a $23.2 billion water resources bill that authorized popular projects around the country.

In the House chamber on Wednesday, longtime critics of farm subsidies in both parties echoed Mr. Bush’s complaints about the current bill.

“Where’s the beef?” asked Representative Ron Kind, Democrat of Wisconsin, standing in the House floor next to a poster showing sharp increases in commodity prices — 126 percent for wheat, 57 percent for soybeans, 45 percent for corn. “Where’s the real reform?” he said.

Some critics have also pointed to earmarks in the bill, including a tax break for racehorse owners added by the Senate Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, and $170 million to benefit the salmon industry inserted by House Democrats from the West Coast.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, in her own speech on the House floor, responded directly to Mr. Kind, whose proposals would drastically overhauling farm subsidies she had supported before the Democrats regained control of Congress in 2006.

Although the legislation is universally known as the farm bill, it actually directs far more money to feeding the poor than it does to helping farmers — about $209 billion for nutrition programs like food stamps, according to the Congressional Budget Office, compared with $35 billion for agricultural commodity programs.

In her speech, Ms. Pelosi praised the bill and said the increase on food stamps alone was reason to support it. She said that while more change would be needed, the bill made important improvements to farm policy.

“With this legislation we will help families facing high food prices,” she said.

At a news conference, the Agriculture Committee chairman, Representative Collin C. Peterson of Minnesota, said he expected the bill to reach the president by May 20 and a veto override to be approved before Congress leaves for a Memorial Day recess.

Both Mr. Peterson and the committee’s senior Republican, Representative Robert W. Goodlatte of Virginia, said the bill represented a strong bipartisan compromise.

“I am very pleased that both parties cast a majority of votes for this farm bill,” Mr. Goodlatte said. “We don’t have a two-to-one majority. We have a three-to-one majority.”

He added: “I believe that we now have the opportunity to say to America that this is a farm bill that truly does assure that we continue to have the safest, most affordable, most abundant food supply in the world. We have addressed the needs of America’s farmers and ranchers.”

    Defying President Bush, Senate Passes Farm Bill, NYT, 15.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/05/15/washington/15cnd-farm.html?hp






Big Tax Breaks for Businesses in Housing Bill


April 16, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Senate proclaimed a fierce bipartisan resolve two weeks ago to help American homeowners in danger of foreclosure. But while a bill that senators approved last week would take modest steps toward that goal, it would also provide billions of dollars in tax breaks — for automakers, airlines, alternative energy producers and other struggling industries, as well as home builders.

The tax provisions of the Foreclosure Prevention Act, which consumer groups and labor leaders say amount to government handouts to big business, show how the credit crisis, while rattling the housing and financial markets, has created beneficiaries in the power corridors of Washington.

It also shows how legislation with a populist imperative offers a chance for lobbyists to press their clients’ interests.

This has proved especially true on the housing legislation, which many lawmakers and lobbyists view as one of the last opportunities before Congress grinds to a halt amid election-year politics.

In the Senate bill, the nation’s biggest home builders, some now on the verge of bankruptcy, won a provision that would let them claim millions in tax refunds by charging their current losses against the huge profits they made three or four years ago. Other struggling industries would benefit from this provision.

“This is our biggest legislative effort since the Tax Reform Act of 1986,” said Jerry M. Howard, chief executive of the National Association of Home Builders. Hundreds of the association’s members flooded the district offices of representatives and senators while they were home for the spring recess last month.

Supporters of the bill, including Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana and the chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, say it represents sound tax policy carefully focused to help stimulate the lagging economy. But the White House opposes the Senate bill, and Democratic leaders in the House not only have promised to provide more relief for individual homeowners, but have also dropped the corporate tax provisions from their version.

Downtrodden automakers — Ford and General Motors — were especially dogged in securing a tax break that would let them collect alternative minimum tax credits, also known as the A.M.T., that would otherwise be out of reach because they did not pay enough taxes in recent years to claim a rebate.

If the provision becomes law, it could mean checks up to $40 million for the car manufacturers, as long as the companies had made investments in plant or equipment in that amount.

A Ford spokesman, Mike Moran, said he was aware that Ford would benefit from the tax credit in the bill passed by the Senate. But Mr. Moran said that the credit applied to a range of industries, not just automakers. A General Motors spokesman could not be reached.

Domestic airlines and manufacturers other than automakers would be eligible to claim the A.M.T. break as well. One lobbyist said that the companies that had sought the tax breaks in meetings with lawmakers included Ford, General Motors, American Airlines, Northwest Airlines and Goodyear Tire and Rubber.

Companies could claim only one of the new tax breaks, which in all, are expected to cost $6 billion through 2018. The jockeying among industry groups, including Realtors, home builders and bankers, is certain to intensify in coming weeks as lawmakers move to reconcile the Senate bill with a more ambitious package of housing legislation now under way in the House.

Lawmakers on the tax-writing House Ways and Means Committee have omitted the corporate tax cuts from their version of the bill in favor of tax breaks for first-time home buyers and developers of low-income rental housing, and more aid for owners facing foreclosure.

Congressional Democrats are also hearing from consumer advocates and other groups who say that the Senate bill does little to help Americans in danger of losing their homes to foreclosure.

“The Senate legislation gave corporations and Wall Street billions in tax breaks,” Terence M. O’Sullivan, the president of the Laborers International Union of North America, said at a news conference on Tuesday to denounce the bill.

“Tax breaks for corporate home builders won’t help stabilize the housing market, won’t create jobs and won’t prevent a single foreclosure,” he continued. “If anything, this multibillion-dollar windfall will make things worse.”

Even Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and the main author of the Senate bill, said the measure did not live up to its name and that he wanted changes. But other lawmakers, and the lobbyists who seek to influence them, also recognize a golden opportunity when they sense that the political winds virtually guarantee a bill’s passage, and the housing crisis is just such a time.

In a sign of how such legislation allows lawmakers to advance many other goals, the Senate bill also includes tax provisions to encourage alternative energy production at a cost of roughly $6 billion over 10 years.

That provision was sponsored by Senator Maria Cantwell, Democrat of Washington, and Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada. A similar measure was dropped from a major energy bill last year and again from the economic stimulus bill in February.

But without quick action to extend expiring tax incentives, Ms. Cantwell said, many companies would simply drop projects. The housing bill was the easiest and fastest way to get things moving.

Other industries facing financial difficulties, like retailers, may realize that the tax provisions in the bill offer help for them, too.

Over the next few weeks, industry groups that fought to secure tax provisions in the Senate bill are expected to argue that providing help for important industries offers the best chance of helping to reverse the economic downturn.

To press their case on Capitol Hill, 15 of the biggest residential construction companies, including KB Homes and Toll Brothers, formed a coalition and hired a lobbying firm, the C2 Group, apart from the larger National Association of Home Builders.

Tom Crawford, a founder of the C2 Group, met with staff members of the Senate Finance Committee, several of whose members had already begun expressing concern about the effect of the slowing economy on home builders and other businesses.

The home builders were hardly the only industry that lawmakers heard from as the Senate housing legislation took shape and it became clear that the bill would provide more in the way of tax breaks aimed at stimulating the economy than direct assistance for distressed homeowners.

The cause of the automobile manufacturers was taken up by Senator George Voinovich, Republican of Ohio, and Senator Debbie Stabenow, Democrat of Michigan, who pushed to allow them access to up to $40 million each in alternative minimum tax credits.

Automakers and other companies that have lost money in recent years have accumulated billions of dollars in such credits, which are based on cumulative payments of the corporate alternative minimum tax. Companies, however, can claim a refund of such credits only in years when they pay regular corporate income taxes in amounts that exceed what they would owe under the alternative tax method.

The provision benefiting home builders and other struggling businesses would allow operating losses to be carried back over four years rather than the two years in current law. It is a strategy that Congress has used as a way of stimulating the economy in previous recessions, most recently in 2002 with the support of the Bush administration.

But the White House opposed the idea when members of Congress proposed it as part of the economic stimulus package earlier this year. And some House Democrats suggest that home builders and their lobbyists will face an uphill battle in trying to keep the provision when the Senate bill is reconciled with a rival tax package that was approved last week by the House Ways and Means Committee.

These Democrats said that the Ways and Means chairman, Representative Charles B. Rangel, Democrat of New York, and other leaders, including Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker, would oppose the provision as benefiting builders at a time when Congress should be helping homeowners.

“This ship largely sailed when Congressional Republicans left it out of the stimulus package,” said one House Democratic aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity so as not to interfere with negotiations.

Unlike the Senate bill, which includes a tax credit of up to $7,500 for purchasers of foreclosed properties, Mr. Rangel’s bill provides a credit for all first-time home buyers — a move that drew strong support from the National Association of Realtors.

“This is a meaningful incentive that should draw into the market many purchasers who, to date, have remained on the sidelines,” the president of the group, Richard F. Gaylord, wrote. “We believe this credit can convert ‘lookers’ into first-time home buyers.”

Other industry groups were also eager to sign on as supporters of Mr. Rangel’s bill, even as many of them hope to push him to endorse a more expansive menu of tax breaks that will benefit them.

Among them were the National Association of Home Builders, the Mortgage Bankers Association, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Council of Federal Home Loan Banks and the American Hospital Association.

Micheline Maynard contributed reporting from Detroit.

    Big Tax Breaks for Businesses in Housing Bill, NYT, 16.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/16/business/16bailout.html?hp






Senate Approves Housing Relief Bill


April 11, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — The Senate on Thursday moved to stabilize the battered housing market by approving a bill to provide tax breaks for home builders and other businesses, a $7,000 tax credit for buyers of foreclosed homes, $150 million for counseling borrowers and $4 billion for local governments to buy foreclosed properties.

The White House has expressed strong opposition to the bill, and Congressional Democrats say it does not provide enough direct assistance to Americans at risk of losing their homes. But lawmakers in both parties and the Bush administration expect some elements of the Senate bill to survive as part of a larger deal on housing legislation.

The Senate approved the bill by a vote of 84 to 12, with 35 Republicans joining the Democrats in favor — an overwhelming show of bipartisan consensus given the White House opposition to the measure. The three presidential candidates, who were campaigning, did not vote; neither did Senator Elizabeth Dole, Republican of North Carolina, whose brother died this week.

Senate Democrats said they were counting on improvements being made in the House, where Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, is leading an effort to help as many as 1.5 million homeowners at risk of foreclosure by having the Federal Housing Administration insure up to $300 billion in refinanced mortgages.

The Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, called the vote “just the beginning of a process” that he said “will continue in the House of Representatives.” He added, “I hope that when the process is complete, we will have a strengthened bipartisan bill that will do even more to help families, communities and our economy.”

Hoping to head off more aggressive legislation by Democrats, the Bush administration on Wednesday announced its own plan to help homeowners replace expensive adjustable-rate mortgages with more affordable 30-year loans insured by the government. Officials said the plan would help as many as 100,000 homeowners this year.

And in a sign of the growing consensus that more government action is needed, Senator John McCain, the Republican presidential candidate, announced his own plan on Thursday at a speech in Brooklyn. Mr. McCain said his plan would similarly help up to 400,000 homeowners refinance into more stable government-backed loans.

The Democratic presidential candidates, Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois, both issued statements saying the Senate bill did not go far enough.

In the House, Mr. Frank has said his plan would help as many as 1.5 million homeowners. The Bush administration disputes that figure, and says that aiding that many borrowers would require loosening underwriting standards to a point where taxpayers would be at serious risk of having to cover the cost of what could be a large number of defaulted loans.

Some of the numbers given for the Bush administration’s plan are also being questioned. Officials say that a loan refinancing program, created by the president in August, called FHA Secure, has helped 140,000 owners refinance so far, and is on track to help 400,000 by year-end. With the new plan to loosen eligibility rules, another 100,000 will refinance, they say.

But some Democrats and advocacy groups say those numbers are exaggerated and only a small fraction of those being helped by the Bush administration were really in danger of foreclosure.

Despite the dispute over the numbers and the disagreement over whether additional assistance would be better handled through legislation or administrative changes to the existing FHA Secure program, some lawmakers predicted that Congress and the White House were on track toward a wider deal on help for homeowners.

“You are finding these things coming to a common ground,” said Senator Christopher J. Dodd, Democrat of Connecticut and chairman of the Banking Committee, who conceded that the Senate bill, which he wrote, fell far short of his goals.

The Senate bill, although unlikely to be enacted in its current form, would cost about $15 billion over 10 years.

The bill would provide $17.6 billion in tax breaks for struggling businesses, including home builders, in 2008 and 2009. The bill would also create a temporary property tax deduction for tax filers who currently do not itemize their deductions. That would cost $1.5 billion through 2009.

In the House, the Ways and Means Committee has advanced a rival bill that does not include the tax break for struggling business owners or the credit for purchases of foreclosed homes.

One provision in the Senate bill that also has support in the House and the White House would provide $10.9 billion in tax- exempt bonds for local housing agencies to refinance subprime loans.

Many Republicans said the Senate bill represented a positive step. “While this measure is a good start in stabilizing the current crisis, there is more to be done for the long term,” Senator Mel Martinez, Republican of Florida, said in a statement.

But some opponents denounced the bill. “This bill needlessly spends billions of dollars to bail out lenders, makes our tax code even more complex and will do little to nothing to stimulate our economy,” Senator Jim DeMint, Republican of South Carolina, said. “In fact, this bill could have the perverse effect of increasing the number of foreclosures and reduce home values for American families nationwide.”

    Senate Approves Housing Relief Bill, NYT, 11.4.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/04/11/business/11housing.html






Senate Votes to Strengthen Product Safety Laws


March 7, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Responding to a wave of defective toys and other goods, the Senate approved a measure on Thursday to overhaul the country’s consumer product laws and strengthen the beleaguered safety agency that oversees the marketplace.

Besides increasing the staff and budget of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the legislation would create a public database of complaints about products and empower state prosecutors to act if they think the federal government is not doing enough to protect consumers.

The Senate bill, which was supported by consumer groups, was adopted 79 to 13. It now heads to a conference committee to be reconciled with a more modest measure endorsed by the White House and major manufacturers that was unanimously passed in December by the House.

An administration statement this week criticized the Senate bill and embraced the House alternative, saying it “takes positive steps toward further ensuring that Americans are protected from unsafe products.” Consumer groups say the House measure is a sop to the manufacturing industry.

In recent weeks, the Senate bill was watered down to gain the support of a core group of Republicans, most notably from Senator Ted Stevens of Alaska, the senior Republican on the commerce committee, and Senator Susan Collins of Maine. The bill was sponsored by Senator Mark Pryor, Democrat of Arkansas, who said it was “more comprehensive and provides for greater transparency and enforcement” than the House bill. By a vote of 57 to 39, the Senate rejected the House bill on Tuesday.

Congress has not adopted major consumer product legislation in 18 years. The measures under consideration come as federal regulators struggle to cope with the explosive growth of foreign imports, particularly from countries with few significant safety standards.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission has been hampered as the White House has left vacant a position on the three-member commission, which has prevented the agency from issuing new rules or penalizing companies that violate the existing ones. The commission has a staff of about 400, roughly half its size in the 1980s. Fifteen inspectors monitor all imports of consumer products under the agency’s supervision, a market that last year was valued at $614 billion.

Both the House and Senate legislation would increase the budget and staff and would grant the agency the authority to issue rules and penalize companies even when the commission lacks a quorum. Both measures would also allow far less lead in toys.

But the Senate measure goes further. It would create a public database of complaints and would permit the attorneys general to seek court injunctions if products endanger residents and the federal government is not acting. It would make mandatory many toy safety standards that are now voluntary and as part of that change require that toys be tested in compliance with a comprehensive set of rules.

The Senate bill would also increase the possible maximum penalty for violations to $20 million, from the current $1.25 million. And it would make it a crime for a company to sell a product that has been recalled.

During a week of debate, Republican critics led by Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina attacked the legislation as being too onerous on businesses, saying it would “create a playground for plaintiffs’ attorneys.” The measure’s Democratic and Republican supporters responded with a parade of stories and pictures of children who were killed or injured by defective products like cribs that collapsed, toys made with lead and small magnet toys that were swallowed.

The White House announced a lengthy list of objections to the Senate legislation. It criticized one provision that would give an enforcement role to state prosecutors and another that would extend whistle-blower protections to employees who disclose safety violations. The administration also opposed provisions that would create a public database of consumer safety complaints and that would require laboratories that test certain children’s products for safety to be independent and privately owned.

“These provisions threaten to burden American consumers and industry in unproductive ways, and may actually harm a well-functioning product safety system,” the administration statement said. The statement did not threaten a veto.

The Congressional action was prompted by a spate of food and product recalls beginning last year that has highlighted the difficulties facing federal regulators.

“We’ve seen toy after toy recalled in this country; 29 million toys were recalled in 2007 alone,” said Senator Amy Klobuchar, Democrat of Minnesota and the author of the bill’s provision for sharp reductions in lead levels in toys. “We’ve seen a record number of imports coming in from other countries that don’t have the safety standards that we do.”

“The current system has been broken by years of neglect, an agency that hasn’t told the truth about the problems and an administration that has turned its back on the problems,” Ms. Klobuchar said.

Echoing the sentiments of some manufacturers and the administration, Mr. DeMint attacked many features of the bill as he unsuccessfully sought to derail it. He said that the whistle-blower protection provision “makes it legally impossible to fire disruptive employees.”

He said the database would be used “to anonymously smear companies” by circulating “frivolous complaints filed by left-wing interest groups.” And he added that the provision to provide new authority to state prosecutors “undermines a cooperative relationship between businesses and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.”

    Senate Votes to Strengthen Product Safety Laws, NYT, 7.3.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/07/business/07consumer.html






Senate Democrats Focus on Economic Cost of War


February 27, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — Undeterred by President Bush and Senator John McCain proudly pointing to progress in Iraq, Congressional Democrats are trying to mount new lines of attack against the administration’s war policies.

In a shift from last year’s failed legislative efforts to force a reduction of troops, the Democrats’ new approach is aimed primarily at framing the issue for the November elections by focusing on the financial cost of military operations and on the war’s implications for the nation’s troubled economy.

With the fifth anniversary of the war fast approaching, the Democrats, citing testimony by the Pentagon’s own commanders, are also emphasizing the strain on the armed forces. In addition the Democrats contend that the war against terrorism should be waged primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not Iraq.

The change in tactics by the Democrats is one of necessity. The closest they came last year to forcing the administration to alter its war plans was in September, when they mustered 56 votes — 4 short of the 60 they needed — to advance legislation that would have required troops to be given as much time back in the United States as they spent overseas before being redeployed.

The Democratic presidential candidates have seized on the Pentagon’s announcement that when the troop escalation ends in July, there will still be 8,000 more soldiers in Iraq than when the so-called surge started because some support units will remain.

And on Monday a coalition of Democratic advocacy groups, with support from John Edwards, who ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced a $20 million public awareness campaign to highlight “the crushing cost of the war.”

“We have to send a message here,” said Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate and former Army paratrooper who has emerged as one of the Democrats’ most authoritative voices on the war.

“We have to have a long-term sustainable strategy; 140,000 troops is not sustainable in the longer term,” he said.

While they sought to focus last year on the all-consuming chaos in Iraq, Democrats now acknowledge that there have been recent security gains. But they say those gains may prove temporary, that political progress has been too slow and that given domestic concerns, the human and financial cost is just too steep.

Republicans, including the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, say they are happy to spend a few days talking about Iraq.

“We welcome a discussion,” Mr. McConnell said Tuesday, “which would give us a chance to talk about the extraordinary progress that has been made in Iraq over the last six months, not only on the military side but also with civilian reconciliation beginning to finally take hold.”

The war issue had faded from focus on Capitol Hill early this year as lawmakers spent the first weeks of the term negotiating an economic stimulus package. But it came gusting back onto the Senate floor on Tuesday with debate over two bills sponsored by Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin.

The first bill would restrict the financing of military operations to fighting terrorism, protecting American troops and training Iraqi forces. The second would give the Bush administration 60 days to report to Congress on its global strategy for defeating Al Qaeda and would limit the length of troop deployments.

On war-related measures last year, Republicans repeatedly blocked Democrat-backed bills outright. But on Tuesday, Republicans appeared so confident and so eager to talk about the war that they voted overwhelmingly to bring Mr. Feingold’s first bill up for 30 hours of debate.

That vote was 70 to 24, with 43 Republicans joining 26 Democrats and one independent in favor of debating the bill, while 20 Democrats, 3 Republicans and one independent voted against it.

Mr. Feingold’s bills, which are certain to be defeated, are the first of several efforts by Democrats to press the war issue.

Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan warning of a resurgence of Al Qaeda because of the continuing concentration of resources in Iraq.

And on Thursday the Joint Economic Committee, led by Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, will hold a hearing on the costs of the war.

This flurry of largely uncoordinated activity suggests that Democrats will take an aggressive stance ahead of the next report by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, who will testify before Congress in early April.

General Petraeus is expected to recommend that the reduction in troop levels now under way be halted for at least a short period, starting in July, to assess the progress that has been made.

Despite the recent military gains, Senator Reed and other Democrats said they were confident that voters remained as weary of the war as ever.

“I think they are beginning to ask themselves questions like, ‘O.K., now that everyone says we have made real progress on the ground, why can’t we start coming out more dramatically?’ ” Mr. Reed said. “And now with the economy becoming such a central issue — $190 billion a year — why are we spending there instead of here?”

The Democrats are also focusing on the strain on the military.

In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, said, “The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force.”

The majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, said Democrats would continue to emphasize the cost of the war.

“We are not going to lose this subject; it’s too important to the American people,” he said. “If this war goes on another year, we will have borrowed a trillion dollars to pay for this war in Iraq.”

    Senate Democrats Focus on Economic Cost of War, NYT, 27.2.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/27/washington/27congress.html






Senate Votes for Expansion of Spy Powers


February 13, 2008
The New York Times


WASHINGTON — After more than a year of wrangling, the Senate handed the White House a major victory on Tuesday by voting to broaden the government’s spy powers and to give legal protection to phone companies that cooperated in President Bush’s program of eavesdropping without warrants.

One by one, the Senate rejected amendments that would have imposed greater civil liberties checks on the government’s surveillance powers. Finally, the Senate voted 68 to 29 to approve legislation that the White House had been pushing for months. Mr. Bush hailed the vote and urged the House to move quickly in following the Senate’s lead.

The outcome in the Senate amounted, in effect, to a broader proxy vote in support of Mr. Bush’s wiretapping program. The wide-ranging debate before the final vote presaged discussion that will play out this year in the presidential and Congressional elections on other issues testing the president’s wartime authority, including secret detentions, torture and Iraq war financing.

Republicans hailed the reworking of the surveillance law as essential to protecting national security, but some Democrats and many liberal advocacy groups saw the outcome as another example of the Democrats’ fears of being branded weak on terrorism.

“Some people around here get cold feet when threatened by the administration,” said Senator Patrick J. Leahy, the Vermont Democrat who leads the Judiciary Committee and who had unsuccessfully pushed a much more restrictive set of surveillance measures.

Among the presidential contenders, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, voted in favor of the final measure, while the two Democrats, Senator Barack Obama of Illinois and Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, did not vote. Mr. Obama did oppose immunity on a key earlier motion to end debate. Mrs. Clinton, campaigning in Texas, issued a statement saying she would have voted to oppose the final measure.

The measure extends, for at least six years, many of the broad new surveillance powers that Congress hastily approved last August just before its summer recess. Intelligence officials said court rulings had left dangerous gaps in their ability to intercept terrorist communications.

The bill, which had the strong backing of the White House, allows the government to eavesdrop on large bundles of foreign-based communications on its own authority so long as Americans are not the targets. A secret intelligence court, which traditionally has issued individual warrants before wiretapping began, would review the procedures set up by the executive branch only after the fact to determine whether there were abuses involving Americans.

“This is a dramatic restructuring” of surveillance law, said Michael Sussmann, a former Justice Department intelligence lawyer who represents several telecommunication companies. “And the thing that’s so dramatic about this is that you’ve removed the court review. There may be some checks after the fact, but the administration is picking the targets.”

The Senate plan also adds one provision considered critical by the White House: shielding phone companies from any legal liability for their roles in the eavesdropping program approved by Mr. Bush after the Sept. 11 attacks. The program allowed the National Security Agency to eavesdrop without warrants on the international communications of Americans suspected of having ties to Al Qaeda.

AT&T and other major phone companies are facing some 40 lawsuits from customers who claim their actions were illegal. The Bush administration maintains that if the suits are allowed to continue in court, they could bankrupt the companies and discourage them from cooperating in future intelligence operations.

The House approved a surveillance bill in November that intentionally left out immunity for the phone companies, and leaders from the two chambers will now have to find a way to work out significant differences between their two bills.

Democratic opponents, led by Senators Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Christopher J. Dodd of Connecticut, argued that the plan effectively rewarded phone companies by providing them with legal insulation for actions that violated longstanding law and their own privacy obligations to their customers. But immunity supporters said the phone carriers acted out of patriotism after the Sept. 11 attacks in complying with what they believed in good faith was a legally binding order from the president.

“This, I believe, is the right way to go for the security of the nation,” said Senator John D. Rockefeller, the West Virginia Democrat who leads the intelligence committee. His support for the plan, after intense negotiations with the White House and his Republican colleagues, was considered critical to its passage but drew criticism from civil liberties groups because of $42,000 in contributions that Mr. Rockefeller received last year from AT&T and Verizon executives.

Senator Olympia J. Snowe, a Maine Republican on the intelligence panel, said the bill struck the right balance between protecting the rights of Americans and protecting the country “from terrorism and other foreign threats.”

Democratic opponents, who six months ago vowed to undo the results of the August surveillance vote, said they were deeply disappointed by the defection of 19 Democrats who backed the bill.

Mr. Dodd, who spoke on the floor for more than 20 hours in recent weeks in an effort to stall the bill, said future generations would view the vote as a test of whether the country heeds “the rule of law or the rule of men.”

But with Democrats splintered, Mr. Dodd acknowledged that the national security argument had won the day. “Unfortunately, those who are advocating this notion that you have to give up liberties to be more secure are apparently prevailing,” he said. “They’re convincing people that we’re at risk either politically, or at risk as a nation.”

There was a measure of frustration in the voice of Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, as he told reporters during a break in the daylong debate, “Holding all the Democrats together on this, we’ve learned a long time ago, is not something that’s doable.”

Senate Republicans predict that they will be able to persuade the House to include immunity in the final bill, especially now that the White House has agreed to give House lawmakers access to internal documents on the wiretapping program. But House Democrats vowed Tuesday to continue opposing immunity.

Congress faces a Saturday deadline for extending the current law, but Democrats want to extend the deadline for two weeks to allow more time for talks. The White House has said it opposes a further extension.

Meanwhile, Senate Democrats hope to put some pressure on Republicans on Wednesday over another security-related issue by bringing up an intelligence measure that would apply Army field manual prohibitions against torture to civilian agencies like the Central Intelligence Agency.

Republicans plan to try to eliminate that provision, a vote that Democrats say will force Republicans to declare whether they condone torture. Democrats also say it could show the gap between Mr. McCain, who has opposed torture, and the administration on the issue.

“We know how we would feel if a member of the armed services captured by the enemy were, for example, waterboarded,” Mr. Reid said. “So I think that we’re headed in the right direction, and I hope that we’ll get Republican support on this.”

Carl Hulse contributed reporting from Washington.

    Senate Votes for Expansion of Spy Powers, NYT, 13.2.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/2008/02/13/us/13fisa.html?hp






Senate Moves to Shield Telecoms on Eavesdropping


February 12, 2008
Filed at 12:52 p.m. ET
The New York Times


WASHINGTON (AP) -- The Senate voted Tuesday to shield from lawsuits telecommunications companies that helped the government eavesdrop on their customers without court permission after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

After nearly two months of stops and starts, the Senate rejected by a vote of 31 to 67 a move to strip away a grant of retroactive legal immunity for the companies.

President Bush has promised to veto any new surveillance bill that does not protect the companies that helped the government in its warrantless wiretapping program, arguing that it is essential if the private sector is to give the government the help it needs.

About 40 lawsuits have been filed against telecom companies by people alleging violations of wiretapping and privacy laws.

The Senate also rejected two amendments that sought to water down the immunity provision.

One, co-sponsored by Republican Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, would have substituted the government for the telecoms in lawsuits, allowing the court cases to go forward but shifting the cost and burden of defending the program.

The other, pushed by California Democrat Dianne Feinstein, would have given a secret court that oversees government surveillance inside the United States the power to dismiss lawsuits if it found that the companies acted in good faith and on the request of the president or attorney general.

Full telecom immunity must still be approved by the House; its version of the surveillance bill does not provide immunity.

At issue is the government's post-9/11 Terrorist Surveillance Program, which circumvented a secret court created 30 years ago to oversee such activities. The court was part of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, a law written in response to government abuse of its surveillance authority against Americans.

The surveillance law has been updated repeatedly since then, most recently last summer. Congress hastily adopted a FISA modification in August in the face of dire warnings from the White House that changes in telecommunications technology and FISA court rulings were dangerously constraining the government's ability to intercept terrorist communications.

Shortly after its passage, privacy and civil liberties groups said the new law gave the government unprecedented authority to spy on Americans, particularly those who communicate with foreigners.

That law expires Feb. 15, the deadline against which the Senate is now racing to pass a new bill.

In a separate voice vote Tuesday, the Senate expanded the power of the court to oversee government eavesdropping on Americans. The amendment would give the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court the authority to monitor whether the government is complying with procedures designed to protect the privacy of innocent Americans whose telephone or computer communications are captured during surveillance of a foreign target.

The bill would also require FISA court orders to eavesdrop on Americans who are overseas. Under current law, the government can wiretap or search the possessions of anyone outside the United States--even a soldier serving overseas-- without court permission if it believes the person may be a foreign agent.

''You don't lose your rights when you leave American soil,'' Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore., said in an interview. Wyden wrote the provision into the bill when it was still being considered by the Senate Intelligence Committee. ''In the digital age, an American's rights shouldn't depend on their physical geography.''

The House approved its own update last fall. If the Senate passes its bill, differences between the two versions remain to be worked out, approved by both houses, and delivered to the president for his signature.

Senate Moves to Shield Telecoms on Eavesdropping, NYT, 12.2.2008, http://www.nytimes.com/aponline/us/AP-Terrorist-Surveillance.html





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