Maybe Harry Reid knows how to play this game after all.
Last week, the Senate Democratic leader confused the political world by deciding
to put two different versions of a Senate surveillance overhaul up for a floor vote, with the base text being the version despised by civil libertarians. The Solomonic decision pleased no one, and Reid ended up yanking the bill until next month after liberal opposition -- most notably, a filibuster by Sen. Chris Dodd (D-CT) -- jeopardized passage of anything.
Reid, however, has to keep his eyes on two calendars. The first calendar has February 1 circled on it. That's the date the Bush administration's broad surveillance measure, known as the Protect America Act, expires. Failure to pass a new bill by that date opens Democrats to the inevitable GOP charge that they're BFF with Osama bin Laden. The second calendar is the primary schedule. As Dodd has demonstrated, placing the surveillance debate in the context of the presidential race makes passing a bill more difficult, as candidates jockey to appease liberal constituencies that passionately oppose the legalization of President Bush's warrantless surveillance program.
So what's left for Reid to do? Punt
. Quoth The Hill
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday he would seek to extend a controversial interim wiretapping law through February to avoid the early presidential primary season.
Reid said Senate Democrats might have a better chance of resolving internal disputes and moving a rewrite of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) once the early primaries have concluded.
The decision makes things dicier for the GOP. Kit Bond, the top Republican on the intelligence committee, told the paper that he opposes a temporary extension of the PAA: "I don't see that it benefits us to continue to delay something that we know we need to do." But if they stick with that line, they'll effectively say that they oppose the administration's chosen legislation, and want the bill to expire.
And they'll also be saying they want to politicize the surveillance fight. That can cut against the Republicans in unexpected ways. What if Mike Huckabee or Ron Paul articulate privacy concerns during Iowa or New Hampshire? The GOP field isn't lockstep on counterterrorism, as McCain or Guiliani's cratering bids have demonstrated. What's more, how will a high-profile insistence by Bush for a new surveillance vote impact the field? After all, in 2006 Bush tried to frame the midterm elections as a referendum on the virtues of warrantless wiretapping. How'd that one turn out for the Republicans, again?
It's by no means certain, but perhaps Reid's on to something here.