Blue Dogs on Hoyer's FISA Leash
By Alexander Bolton
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.), the House Democrats' point man in negotiations on an overhaul of intelligence surveillance law, is keeping his eye on conservative Blue Dog Democrats who might defect on the issue under Republican pressure.
The topic has reached a critical point because surveillance orders granted by the director of national intelligence and the attorney general under the authority of the Protect America Act begin to expire in August.
If Congress does not approve an overhaul of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) by Memorial Day, intelligence community officials will have to prepare dozens of individual surveillance warrants, a cumbersome alternative to the broader wiretapping authority granted by the Protect America Act, say congressional officials familiar with the issue.
Conservative and freshman Democrats are growing skittish. These lawmakers expect campaign opponents to accuse them of imperiling national security if Congress does not enact new intelligence surveillance legislation.
One outside interest group, the Defense of Democracies Action Fund, has already launched radio ads specifically criticizing Blue Dog Democrats for supporting a House-crafted intelligence bill opposed by President Bush.
Many liberal House Democrats, on the other hand, do not view the intelligence bill as the highest priority on their agenda. Disputing any suggestion they take national security lightly, these Democrats argue that the executive branch has the authority it needs to effectively monitor suspected targets.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has stepped back from the FISA talks and let Hoyer spearhead House talks with the Senate and executive branch. Some Democrats say privately that she has not shown much urgency to reach agreement with the White House.
Recognizing a political opportunity, House Republicans last week launched a discharge petition to press Blue Dog Democrats to support a Senate-passed bill favored by Bush but opposed by the Democratic leadership. The petition would force the Democratic leaders to schedule the Senate bill on the House floor, where a coalition of Republicans and conservative Democrats could provide enough support for passage.
The Protect America Act, which granted intelligence officials broad authority, expired in February. Democratic leaders have argued, however, that its expiration would not affect information-gathering because surveillance orders signed by senior administration officials remain in effect. But that will change in August when those orders begin to expire.
Hoyer has discussed various possible compromises with Blue Dogs in the hope of avoiding defections similar to what Democratic leaders saw on Republican-favored immigration legislation.
"A number of Blue Dogs are working on a compromise between the House and the Senate," said Rep. Jane Harman (Calif.), a member of the Blue Dog Coalition and the former ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee. "I'm working with Hoyer and working with others.
"Some other Blue Dogs are involved," she added. "Blue Dogs are 47 votes; 47 votes will determine how this comes out."
Harman acknowledged, however, that there is a split in the Blue Dog Coalition and that some members support a Senate-crafted overhaul of FISA while she and others say it gives "blank check" immunity to telecommunications companies that turned over customer data to intelligence authorities.
Harman said that Hoyer, who has longstanding ties with the coalition, will be pivotal to recruiting conservative Democratic support for whatever bill emerges from House-Senate negotiations.
"I would anticipate that Hoyer will play a role selling it to Blue Dogs," she said.
Republicans successfully pressed Democrats to act on border security legislation sponsored by freshman Rep. Heath Shuler (D-N.C.). Republicans circulated a discharge petition that would force action on the immigration bill and gathered the signatures of 10 Democrats. More than 170 Republicans have signed it.
The defections of conservative Democrats on a controversial procedural tactic Ñ the petition would usurp the authority of the Democratic leadership Ñ appears to have given the House Ways and Means Committee incentive to schedule a hearing on immigration next week.
Republicans aim to drive a similar wedge between conservative Democrats and their leaders on intelligence reform.
"Our hope is to pass the bipartisan Senate-passed FISA bill," said Michael Steel, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
Steel said that would happen if Republicans collected 218 signatures on the petition or came close enough to put pressure on Democratic leaders to act.
Republicans will focus their efforts on Blue Dogs, especially the 21 conservatives who signed a January letter to Pelosi announcing their support for the Senate intelligence bill.
"Any Blue Dog on record as one of the 21 who signed the letter to Pelosi should sign the discharge petition," said Steel.
Hoyer is counting on his strong ties to Blue Dogs and their participation in talks about a compromise to forestall defections.
Vulnerable freshman Democrats and Blue Dogs say the issue demands action.
"Overall, it's very important," said Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a freshman member of the Blue Dog Coalition who often votes against his leadership.
Carney said that a compromise should protect national security and also respect civil liberties. He was one of the 21 Democrats who signed the letter to Pelosi, making him a prime Republican target.
"I've been in favor of the Senate bill. We'll see what happens," he said. Carney said that Republican leaders have not yet asked him to sign the discharge petition.