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No traction on censure, but much theater

Republicans made political hay Friday over a Democrat's call to rebuke the president over domestic eavesdropping.

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Despite the Senate's cool response to Sen. Russell Feingold's calls to censure the president over his unilateral authorization of domestic surveillance, the issue of executive power worries lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, especially for a war with no end in sight.

For the Senate Judiciary Committee, Friday marked the fourth hearing on President Bush's top-secret spying program since it was disclosed in December.

"These are big, big issues," said Judiciary chairman Arlen Specter (R) of Pennsylvania, who said he thought Mr. Bush's action, which the senator sees as a violation of law, would attract more attention than it has.

Besides Senator Feingold, only two Democratic senators - ranking member Patrick Leahy of Vermont and fellow Wisconsinite Herb Kohl - showed up at Friday's hearing to examine the case for censure. Just two Democrats, Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa, have signed on as cosponsors.

For Republicans, the censure resolution is a welcome change of subject from the port-security flap that has roiled GOP ranks on Capitol Hill. GOP leaders urged a quick vote that they are sure to win - just as they did in November with another controversial Democratic step: Rep. John Murtha's call for immediate redeployment of US forces from Iraq. The censure motion, says Senate majority leader Bill Frist, is a sign that Democrats are weak on national security and would try to impeach Bush, if they were to gain control of Congress in midterm elections.

"On censure, senior Democratic leaders are probably right: It's a bad political move. Americans are angry with the president but not ready to bring him down," says Michael O'Hanlon, senior defense analyst at the Brookings Institution.

"But on its legal merits, I'm not sure that Feingold is wrong," he adds. "However, Democrats are spending too much time being against the president and need to spend more time developing a positive vision."

After months of deliberation, House and Senate Democrats released their national security plan last week. It calls for more investments in the military and homeland security, including screening 100 percent of cargo coming into US ports, and energy independence by 2020. But unlike the Murtha proposal, it does not set a timetable for US withdrawal from Iraq. It also echoes calls from the Bush White House and the GOP-controlled Congress that 2006 must be a year of significant transition in Iraq.

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