Incoming Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick J. Leahy said yesterday that he plans to rein in President Bush’s program of wiretapping without warrants, rewrite the policy for handling terrorism detainees and more closely scrutinize nominees to the federal courts.
“As a Democratic majority prepares to take the lead on the Judiciary Committee, we do not have the luxury of starting with a completely clean slate,” the Vermont Democrat told an audience at Georgetown University Law Center. “We begin knowing that we have a duty to repair real damage done to our system of government over the last few years.”
Mr. Leahy accused Mr. Bush of “corrosive unilateralism,” eroding the privacy rights of Americans, erasing constitutional checks and balances, and “packing” the federal judiciary.
The Republican House and Senate, he said, accepted White House policy changes without question.
“I came to the Senate during the ebb tide of Vietnam and Watergate. In my 32 years since then in the Senate, I have never seen a Congress so willfully derelict in its duties,” Mr. Leahy said. “This has been an unfortunate chapter in Congress’ history, a time when our Constitution was under assault, when our legal and human rights were weakened, when our privacy and other freedoms were eroded.”
Still, he said, he hopes to proceed in a bipartisan manner.
“Senator Leahy has not yet assumed the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, but his statements today and in recent weeks are already raising disturbing questions about his ability and willingness to give fair consideration to the president’s judicial nominees,” said Curt Levey, executive director of the conservative Committee for Justice, who attended the speech.
Though short on specifics, Mr. Leahy criticized the program of wiretapping without warrants and said he hopes to update the laws governing foreign intelligence warrants. “With meaningful oversight and cooperation from this administration, we can achieve the right balance,” he said.
Sen. Jon Kyl, Arizona Republican and Judiciary Committee member, defended the president’s program, aimed at capturing communications of terrorist plotters.
“Protecting legitimate privacy rights while ensuring the safety and security of the American people from terrorists is not a zero-sum game,” he said in response to Mr. Leahy’s comments. “We have done and can do both. Indeed, we should be seeking ways to add more tools to fight terrorists, not begin dismantling the effective laws Congress has passed in recent years.”
Mr. Leahy said he wants Congress to reconsider legislation denying habeas corpus rights to terrorism suspects held at the U.S. Naval Base Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
He also said he hopes to make “further progress” on the Senate’s immigration reform bill, which proposes a path to citizenship for most of the estimated 12 million to 20 million illegal aliens in the country.
“We made some bipartisan progress on the committee and in the Senate last year only to be stymied by Republican congressional leaders,” he said. “We can work together to bring people out of the shadows, to treat hardworking people with dignity and respect rather than disdain and discrimination.”
Mr. Leahy criticized Bush nominations to the federal bench. “For too long, this White House has used judicial nominations for partisan political purposes and refused to work with us on consensus nominees,” he said.
Those remarks reopened a rift with conservatives, who see only partisan politics in Senate Democrats’ filibusters of several nominations.
Mr. Levey said Mr. Leahy’s calls for consultation overlook the Constitution, which gives the president the “sole power of appointing judges.”
“Leahy apparently views himself as the president’s partner in selecting nominees, rather than as part of the limited advice-and-consent process envisioned for the Senate by the Constitution,” he said. “Moreover, when Senator Leahy speaks of wanting ‘consensus’ judicial nominees, what he appears to have in mind are nominees that are acceptable to the coalition of ultraliberal groups that have orchestrated much of the opposition to the president’s judicial picks.”