Post-Bush Truth Commission May Not Take the Form of a Senate Bill

Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy’s (D-VT) call yesterday for an independent “truth and reconciliation commission” to investigate the abuses committed under the Bush administration is meeting with strong support from at least two of his panel’s Democratic members.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-WI) just released a statement hailing Leahy’s “leadership” on the issue and stressing the need for accountability: “We cannot simply sweep these assaults on the rule of law under the rug.” Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) was the first to weigh in with support for the idea yesterday.

But one key question remains unanswered: Will senators follow the lead of their House colleagues and actually offer a bill to set up an independent investigative panel to shed sunlight on the misdeeds of the Bush years, from interrogations to warrantless wiretapping?

As Whitehouse told me today, the answer may be no — but here’s why.“There are different ways to go about this,” Whitehouse told me. “I don’t want to be married to any particular way until I see what can get the most support.” What matters most, he added, is that the “end [goal] of disclosure be achieved.”

Rather than passing a bill to establish a truth commission-type body, senators may choose to work through the existing framework of the Justice Department. As it stands, new Attorney General Eric Holder has vowed to review controversial decisions ranging from the Brad Schlozman case to the use of the state secrets privilege.

One option for senators is to expand that review process with added appropriations to the DoJ. Another, Whitehouse explained, is running the inquiry through the Judiciary Committee. Either of those moves, however, is bound to be blasted by Republicans as an improper attempt to “politicize the law,” as Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) described the truth commission proposal to me.

Graham made no bones about opposing the idea of looking back at the Bush years. “It goes down a dangerous road,” he told me, “towards some of the things the Bush administration has done.”

And he’s not the only Judiciary Committee member who might chafe at using legislation to set up such a commission. “I think that’s going to be done” by the DoJ, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD) told me. “I don’t think it needs to be done in a way that could impose partisan concerns.”

One thing’s for sure: If House Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers (D-MI) wants to keep the momentum going for legislating the truth commission plan, it’s time to hold a hearing.