In a tense moment during negotiations over the Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act, Sen. Kit Bond — the ranking Republican on the Senate Intelligence Committee — said that his side of the aisle could never accept one of the proposals the Democrats were pushing.
According to Democratic insiders, House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer abruptly stopped the meeting and said that, if a deal was made, no one would get more grief than he would.
Hoyer was right about that.
The Maryland Democrat shepherded a set of FISA amendments through the House last week — winning praise from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and even some in his party to who opposed the deal — but now finds himself subjected to a barrage of criticism from his party’s left.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) called the House bill a “capitulation.” Salon.com’s Glenn Greenwald called Hoyer an “evil, craven enabler of the Bush administration.” Firedoglake.com blogger Jane Hamsher — delivering the lowest possible blow from the liberal blogosphere — declared Hoyer “the new Joe Lieberman.”
Hoyer knew it was coming, and he persevered anyway. That he did so speaks volumes about who he is: a master of cloakroom politics who can use his friendships across the aisle to strike deals, even if others demand that his party hew closer to the positions that put it in power in 2006.
In an interview with Politico on Monday, Hoyer called the FISA legislation a “significant victory” for the Democratic Party — one that neutralized an issue Republicans might have been able to use against Democrats in November while still, in his view, protecting the civil liberties of American citizens.
Hoyer said that House Democrats succeeded in dialing back some of the provisions contained in the earlier, Senate-passed version of the FISA legislation. While the Senate bill provided retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies that participated in President Bush’s warrantless surveillance program, Hoyer noted that the House version mandates judicial review of the companies’ actions. Legal experts and congressional opponents argue that such review will ultimately be meaningless.
Hoyer was clearly the driving force in the months of arduous discussions over the FISA rewrite, holding numerous sessions with Bond, House Intelligence Committee Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), Judiciary Committee Chairman John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.), Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) and senior Bush administration officials such as White House chief of staff Josh Bolten.
Hoyer said he discussed the issue several times with Bush himself, most recently at a White House reception, but that he never got into specifics in the talks with the president.
According to several Democratic insiders, Hoyer was able to keep the talks going by pointing out that he, more than anyone else in the room, was taking a huge political risk by trying to reach a deal. The Democratic leader in the House was also able to bridge the rancor between the two main Senate negotiators and their respective aides, joking frequently during tense negotiations and keeping the conversation going despite an obvious animosity in the room, aides said. Similarly, Hoyer and staff worked closely with his friend Blunt to make sure both sides kept in close contact in the House.
Hoyer said that if House Democratic leaders failed to reach a FISA deal with the White House and GOP leaders, as many as “30 Blue Dogs and another 20 to 30 members” could have signed onto a Republican discharge petition calling for a floor vote on the Senate version of the FISA bill, which was even more anathema to House Democrats than what eventually passed.
Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.) confirmed that “there were a lot of Blue Dogs getting anxious” and “a lt” of them would have signed a discharge petition.
“You can take a position and be a purist and sort of sit around yelling at each [other] across the [political] divide and nothing gets done,” Hoyer said. “The American people, they want us to get this done. That’s the whole thing to me.”
Pelosi voted in favor of the FISA bill, and she offered both public and private praise for Hoyer’s work on it. The two held one-on-one talks during the negotiations, with even their top staff cut out, and Hoyer was well aware of what Pelosi would want before she’d let the legislation get to the floor. The two embraced on the House floor after the vote, a visual display of détente between two leaders who have had their differences over the years.
“It’s a very difficult task [with] many competing views as to how we should go forward,” Pelosi said on the House floor prior to Friday’s FISA vote. “Mr. Hoyer handled it all with great intellect and great respect for all of those views. Thank you, Mr. Hoyer.”
The Maryland Democrat said a “lot of members came up to me and said, ‘We’re glad you got this done,’” after the FISA legislation passed the House by a 293-129 vote — even if they didn’t vote for the bill themselves. “While I cannot support the legislation before us today, I commend Majority Leader Hoyer for the work he has done to negotiate a bill that is substantially better than the version that passed in the Senate,” Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) said on the House floor.
Throughout the negotiations, Hoyer met frequently with people who would never support the bill and included their aides in many of his briefings. In fact, on the day of the vote, he even sat down with New York Rep. Jerrold Nadler, one of the most vocal critics of this update.
Despite those efforts, liberal activists were furious at what they view as a sellout by House Democrats on FISA, particularly on the retroactive immunity for telecommunications companies.
Two liberal groups, Blue America PAC and ColorofChange.org PAC, ran a full-page ad in The Washington Post spelling out their displeasure with Hoyer. But Hoyer has been targeted by the left in the past — MoveOn.org has run radio ads against him — but he was reelected with nearly 83 percent of the vote in 2006, and he’s never drawn less than 65 percent of the vote.
“I am aware of it,” Hoyer said of the loud criticism from progressive groups of the FISA agreement. “When you try to reach a compromise, the people on one side or the other are not pleased.”
Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) called the FISA compromise a “very terrible bill.” Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich (D-Ohio) said the bill would allow “large corporations and big government” to “work together to violate the United States Constitution” and “use massive databases to spy, to wiretap, to invade the privacy of the American people.”
But Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.) said Hoyer did what he had to do in getting the deal done.
“To Hoyer’s credit, he really stepped up,” Harman said. “He didn’t start as a FISA expert, but now he could teach a law school class on it.”