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Seats Notably Empty at Censure Hearing

The Senate Judiciary Committee begins to weigh a measure against President Bush, with several members of both parties absent.

April 01, 2006|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate heard the first detailed arguments on the merits of formally censuring President Bush during a frequently testy committee hearing Friday that highlighted Republican opposition and Democratic ambivalence toward the idea.

Five legal experts appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee to discuss the resolution that Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) introduced in mid-March to censure Bush for authorizing a domestic spying program by the National Security Agency that operates without court warrants.

John W. Dean III, the former White House counsel for President Nixon, provided the session's most dramatic moments with testimony favoring the resolution.

Dean, a key player in the Watergate scandal that toppled Nixon's presidency, charged that Bush's assertions of expansive executive power in waging the war on terrorism represented an "even more serious" threat to the Constitution than the misdeeds by Nixon and his aides.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Wednesday April 05, 2006 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 39 words Type of Material: Correction
Censure hearing: An article in Saturday's Section A about a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing on a resolution to censure President Bush said that John W. Dean III had testified before Congress about Watergate in 1976. He testified in 1973.

"Had a censure resolution been issued about some of Nixon's conduct long before it erupted to the degree ... that came, it would have been a godsend," Dean said.

Other witnesses disputed the notion that censuring Bush was justified. And, as expected, the five Republican senators at the hearing condemned the Feingold resolution.

"I can only hope that this constitutionally suspect and, I believe, inflammatory attempt to punish the president for leading this war on terror will not weaken his ability to do so," said Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah).

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), the committee chairman, said he saw "no merit" to the resolution.

Feingold countered that the Senate needed to send Bush a strong signal that it rejected his claims of authority to act without congressional approval on surveillance and other issues, such as the treatment of war prisoners.

"What we have here ... is one of the greatest attempts to dismantle our system of government that we have seen in the history of our country," Feingold said. "Otherwise, I wouldn't be talking about censure."

After the hearing, which drew a throng of reporters but a small public audience, Specter suggested that Feingold's proposal would receive a committee vote. "It will be before the committee in due course," he said.

Many Republicans believe bringing the resolution to a vote will embarrass and divide Democrats. Also, the Republican National Committee posted a video on its website Friday implying that censure was the first step in a Democratic plan to impeach Bush if the party regained control of Congress.

"Who do you stand with?" the video asks.

At the hearing, Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, the committee's ranking Democrat, embraced Feingold's call to censure Bush. "I ... have no hesitation in condemning the president for secretly and systematically violating the laws of the United States of America," he said.

But the hearing also dramatized, in the form of a long row of empty chairs, the hesitance other Democrats have about the resolution. Besides Leahy and Feingold, the only other committee Democrat who attended was Sen. Herb Kohl of Wisconsin. And he left without delivering an opening statement or questioning any of the witnesses.

Democrats skipping the session included Sens. Dianne Feinstein of California, Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware. Five of the panel's GOP members also were absent.

Feingold's resolution has been championed by an array of left-leaning blogs and the online liberal advocacy group But it has attracted only two co-sponsors -- Sens. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.).

Most of Friday's testimony focused on whether Bush broke the law after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks by authorizing the surveillance of international telephone and e-mail communications by people in America with suspected links to terrorists without the warrants required under the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

Dean, author of a recent book critical of Bush called "Worse Than Watergate," and Bruce Fein, a former attorney in the Reagan administration, argued that the surveillance violated the act.

Disagreeing were Robert F. Turner, the associate director of the University of Virginia's Center for National Security Law; Lee Casey, another former Reagan administration attorney; and John Schmidt, an associate attorney general under President Clinton. They contended the spying was justified either by the congressional resolution authorizing Bush to use force against terrorists after Sept. 11 or by the president's inherent constitutional powers as commander in chief.

"He did not break the law, and there is no evidence that he has in any way misused the information collected," Casey said. "This is not Watergate."

Dean's presence was clearly meant to imply otherwise, and he drew the most fire from Republicans.

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