Tuesday, January 3, 2006

Democrats on Capitol Hill are drafting a strategy to attack the Bush administration and Republicans as having little regard for the privacy of Americans.

“We will initiate at the beginning of this year one of the most serious debates and discussions on Capitol Hill in our history about individual rights and liberties,” Minority Whip Richard J. Durbin said just before Christmas.

The topic will be a major focus of the Supreme Court confirmation hearings of federal Judge Samuel A. Alito Jr. as privacy rights — the political code phrase for abortion rights — already has become a major issue, Mr. Durbin said.

Democratic leaders then plan to keep the issue alive as they continue their opposition to key parts of the USA Patriot Act, which is set to expire in early February unless extended.

But the real payoff, Democrats say, will be the hearings into President Bush’s authorization of warrantless spying on terror suspects. Already, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Arlen Specter, Pennsylvania Republican, said he wants to hold hearings on the matter.

“Senator Specter has promised a hearing on the questions that have been raised about eavesdropping and spying on Americans,” Mr. Durbin, Illinois Democrat, said. “At the same period of time, we will be debating those same issues in the context of the Patriot Act and the war on terrorism.”

Democratic aides say privately that while it remains a high goal to win control over the House or Senate in the November elections, they think the issue will resonate with voters.

Centrist Democrats, however, warn that such a strategy could backfire.

“I think when you suggest that civil liberties are just as much at risk today as the country is from terrorism, you’ve gone too far if you leave that impression,” Michael O’Hanlon, a national security analyst at the Brookings Institution who advises Democrats on defense issues, told The Washington Times last week.

“I get nervous when I see the Democrats playing this [civil liberties] issue out too far,” he said.

But Democrats, such as House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, have been full speed ahead on the new strategy. The California Democrat has been critical of Mr. Bush’s eavesdropping policy, portions of the Patriot Act and the war in Iraq.

Like Mr. O’Hanlon, Republicans are doubtful the issue will take hold.

“Nancy Pelosi and [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid never miss an opportunity to drive the train right off the tracks and remind voters why their reluctance to trust Capitol Hill Democrats on the important issues is justifiable,” said Kevin Madden, spokesman for Rep. Tom DeLay, the Texas Republican who stepped down as House majority leader to fight charges he violated federal campaign-finance laws.

Voters, Republicans say, will agree with Mr. Bush’s decision to use extraordinary efforts to thwart terrorist plots and already support the Patriot Act as an effective tool in the fight against terrorists.

“Essentially, Democratic leaders themselves have exposed the weak underbelly of the Democratic platform,” said Mr. Madden, noting that key Democrats such as Mrs. Pelosi have advocated an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

“At a time when our military is fighting a war in Iraq against terrorists, while the law-enforcement community is trying to track them down is an effort to prevent attacks here at home, Democrats are advocating retreat on the battlefield while seeking to restrict law enforcement’s pursuit of terror suspects already amongst us,” he said.

Senate Republicans say the strategy reminds them of the Democrats — such as former Sen. Max Cleland of Georgia — who opposed the creation of the Homeland Security Department after the 2001 terrorist attacks.

One Republican aide said he looks forward to posting pictures of Mr. Cleland around the Capitol during the Patriot Act debate as a warning to Democrats that they will face a similar political demise.

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