I was having a conversation with a liberal friend of mine this weekend, and he reminded me of Senator Daschle's treatment of Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold during debate over the USA Patriot Act. Senator Feingold was the lone vote in the Senate against the USA Patriot Act, and his contentious dissent incensed Senator Daschle. The story is worth recalling, in light of Daschle playing up his dissenter credentials after John Thune questioned Daschle's judgment in making his divisive comments on the eve of the Iraq war.
Senator Feingold was interviewed by The Progressive and here's what he had to say about the Daschle squeeze:
Q: You were the lone Senator to oppose the USA Patriot Act. How would you describe Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's reaction to you?
Feingold: Fairly brutal. I want to thank Tom Daschle on campaign finance reform. He really came around and helped us move it through. I had a reverse experience on the USA Patriot Act. When the original Ashcroft anti-terrorism bill came in, they wanted us to pass it two days later. I thought this thing was going to be greatly improved. They did get rid of a couple of provisions, like looking into educational records. But there were still twelve or thirteen very disturbing things, and I thought, OK, we'll take care of this. But then something happened in the Senate, and I think the Democratic leadership was complicit in this. Suddenly, the bottom fell out. I was told that a unanimous consent agreement was being offered with no amendments and no debate. They asked me to give unanimous consent. I refused. The Majority Leader came to the floor and spoke very sternly to me, in front of his staff and my staff, saying, you can't do this, the whole thing will fall apart. I said, what do you mean it'll fall apart, they want to pass this, too. I said, I refuse to consent. He was on the belligerent side for Tom Daschle. And everybody said they were surprised at his remarks. Reporters thought it was so unlike him. And it is unlike him....
What happened in the Senate was that even though the Attorney General was going to allow these changes to make it moderately better, the Administration insisted, and Daschle went along with pushing this through. I finally got to offer the amendments late at night, and I got up there and I made my arguments. And a lot of Senators came around to me, who, of course, voted for the bill, and said, you know, I think you're right. Then Daschle comes out and says, I want you to vote against this amendment and all the other Feingold amendments; don't even consider the merits. This was one of the most fundamental pieces of legislation relating to the Bill of Rights in the history of our country! It was a low point for me in terms of being a Democrat and somebody who believes in civil liberties.
Nat Hentoff wrote a column about this headlined "Sen. Tom Daschle, the enforcer." Excerpt:
In the May issue of The Progressive -- a national monthly magazine based in Wisconsin -- Feingold reveals an intriguing similarity between Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's attitude toward contentious dissent and Ashcroft's assertion that those who criticize the USA Patriot Act are providing immunity to the enemy.
While that bill was being rushed through Congress by the administration, Daschle asked his troops to unanimously agree to it without debating or amending the bill. Feingold refused because the bill, he said, had some "very disturbing things."
At that point in The Progressive interview, Feingold revealed that "the majority leader came to the floor and spoke very sternly to me, in front of his staff and my staff saying, 'you can't do this, the whole thing will fall apart.'"
Feingold would not be intimidated by his leader. According to Feingold, Ashcroft -- whom Feingold voted for in the Senate Judiciary Committee -- said on the phone that Feingold might be right about some of the changes the senator wanted. But, Feingold said, "the White House overruled him."
Late that night, Feingold, defying Daschle, rose to offer an amendment to the USA Patriot Act. Feingold recalls: "A lot of senators came around to me who, of course, voted for the bill, and said, 'you know, I think you're right.'
"Then Daschle comes out and says to them, 'I want you to vote against this amendment and all other Feingold amendments; don't even consider the merits.' This was one of the most fundamental pieces of legislation relating to the Bill of Rights in the history of our country! It was a low point for me in terms of being a Democrat and somebody who believes in civil liberties."