Robert Novak

That opened the door for Pelosi to pass the bill with minority Democratic support. A Jan. 28 letter to the speaker signed by 21 House Blue Dogs (moderate Democrats) urged passage of Rockefeller's bill containing immunity. Democrats supporting it could exceed 40 in a House vote, easy enough for passage.

Instead, the Democratic leadership Wednesday brought up another bill simply extending FISA authority, this one for 21 days. Republicans refused to go along because it did not provide phone companies with the necessary immunity. It still could have passed with support from Democrats only, and the leadership surely thought that would happen when it was brought to the floor Wednesday. But it failed, 229 to 191, with 34 Democrats voting no despite pleas for support from their leaders. The opponents included three congressmen who signed the letter to Pelosi advocating immunity from lawsuits, but most were Kucinich Democrats who intuitively vote against any anti-terrorist proposal.

Clearly, opposition to the Rockefeller bill shown in the subsequent House Democratic caucus derived less from Kucinich's phobia to tough anti-terror countermeasures than obeisance to generous trial lawyers. Pelosi had to decide whether to pass the bill with a minority of her party, which can be dangerous for any leader of a House majority. In October 1998, Republican Speaker Newt Gingrich passed the Clinton administration's budget with 30 percent Republican support, less than a month before GOP losses in midterm elections forced his resignation from Congress.

Nothing will be done until the House formally returns Feb. 25, and the adjournment resolution was constructed so that Bush cannot summon Congress back into session. Last Friday morning, debating two backbench Republicans on a nearly deserted House floor, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer said there was no danger in letting the FISA legislation lapse temporarily. Democrats hope that will be the reaction of voters, as Republicans attack what happened last week.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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