By LAURIE KELLMAN
Democrats distanced themselves Monday from Wisconsin Sen. Russell Feingold’s effort to censure President Bush over domestic spying, preventing a floor vote that could alienate swing voters.
A day of tough, election-year talk between Feingold and Vice President Dick Cheney ended with Senate leaders sending the matter to the Judiciary Committee.
"I look forward to a full hearing, debate and vote in committee on this important matter," Feingold said in a statement late Monday. "If the Committee fails to consider the resolution expeditiously, I will ask that there be a vote in the full Senate."
Republicans dared Democrats to vote for the proposal.
"Some Democrats in Congress have decided the president is the enemy," Vice President Dick Cheney told a Republican audience in Feingold’s home state.
Feingold, a potential presidential candidate, said on the Senate floor, "The president has violated the law and Congress must respond."
"A formal censure by Congress is an appropriate and responsible first step to assure the public that when the president thinks he can violate the law without consequences, Congress has the will to hold him accountable," Feingold said.
Even as he spoke, Democratic leaders held off the immediate vote that Majority Leader Bill Frist requested. Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., said he didn’t know if there ever would be one. Durbin said that Feingold had sought to use the censure resolution "as a catalyst" for thorough hearings and investigations.
The referral averted a debate and a vote that Democrats privately worried would alienate voters who could decide close elections.
Throughout the day, Feingold’s fellow Democrats said they understood his frustration but they held back overt support for the resolution.
Several said they wanted first to see the Senate Intelligence Committee finish an investigation of the warrantless wiretapping program that Bush authorized as part of his war on terrorism.
Asked at a news conference whether he would vote for the censure resolution, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada declined to endorse it and said he hadn’t read it.
Sen. Joe Lieberman, D-Conn., said he had not read it either and wasn’t inclined simply to scold the president.
"I’d prefer to see us solve the problem," Lieberman told reporters.
Across the Capitol, reaction was similar. Feingold’s censure resolution drew empathy but no outright support from Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi.
Pelosi "understands Sen. Feingold’s frustration that the facts about the NSA domestic surveillance program have not been disclosed appropriately to Congress," her office said in a statement. "Both the House and the Senate must fully investigate the program and assign responsibility for any laws that may have been broken."
Feingold’s resolution accuses Bush of violating the Constitution and the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
It reads in part:
"Resolved that the United States Senate does hereby censure George W. Bush, president of the United States, and does condemn his unlawful authorization of wiretaps of Americans within the United States without obtaining the court orders required."
The resolution says censuring Bush also is warranted by "his failure to inform the full congressional intelligence committees as required by law, and his efforts to mislead the American people about the authorities relied upon by his administration to conduct wiretaps and about the legality of the program."
The only president ever censured by the Senate was Andrew Jackson, in 1834, for removing the nation’s money from a private bank in defiance of the Whig-controlled Senate.
In 1999, a censure resolution failed against President Clinton after he was acquitted by the Senate on House impeachment charges that he committed perjury and obstructed justice in the Monica Lewinsky affair.
"This is clearly more serious than what President Clinton was accused of doing," Feingold reporters after his floor speech.
Cheney said Monday, "The outrageous proposition that we ought to protect our enemies’ ability to communicate as it plots against America poses a key test of our Democratic leaders."
"The American people already made their decision," Cheney added. "They agree with the president."