WASHINGTON, D.C. -- A closed-door caucus of House Democrats last Wednesday took a risky political course. By four to one, they instructed Speaker Nancy Pelosi to call President Bush's bluff on extending the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to continue eavesdropping on suspected foreign terrorists. Rather than passing the bill with a minority of the House's Democratic majority, Pelosi obeyed her caucus and left town for a 12-day recess without renewing the government's eroding intelligence capability.
Pelosi could have exercised leadership prerogatives and called up the FISA bill to pass with unanimous Republican support. Instead, she refused to bring to the floor the bill approved overwhelmingly by the Senate. House Democratic opposition included left-wing members typified by Rep. Dennis Kucinich, but they are but a small faction. The true cause for blocking the bill was the Senate-passed retroactive immunity from lawsuits for private telecommunications firms asked to eavesdrop by the government. The nation's torts bar, vigorously pursuing such suits, has spent months lobbying hard against immunity.
The recess by House Democrats amounts to a judgment that losing the generous support of trial lawyers, the Democratic Party's most important financial base, is more dangerous than losing the anti-terrorist issue to Republicans. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the phone companies for giving personal information to intelligence agencies without a warrant. Adm. Mike McConnell, the nonpartisan director of national intelligence, says delay in congressional action deters cooperation in detecting terrorism.
Big money is involved. Amanda Carpenter, a Townhall.com columnist, has prepared a spreadsheet showing that 66 trial lawyers representing plaintiffs in the telecommunications suits have contributed $1.5 million to Democratic senators and causes. Of the 29 Democratic senators who voted against the FISA bill last Tuesday, 24 took money from the trial lawyers (as did two absent senators, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama). Eric A. Isaacson of San Diego, one of the telecommunications plaintiff's lawyers, contributed to the recent unsuccessful presidential campaign of Sen. Chris Dodd, who led the Senate fight against the bill containing immunity.
The bill passed the Senate 68 to 29, with 19 Democrats voting aye. They included Intelligence Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and three senators who defeated Republican incumbents in the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jim Webb of Virginia and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.