Robert Novak pulls together the politics of the Democratic refusal to call the Senate's bipartisan FISA reform bill to the House floor last week. Instead of taking a vote that Blue Dog Democrats has assured her would pass on that bill, Pelosi tried embarrassing the White House by voting for a 21-day extension to the current reform bill -- and that failed, with some Blue Dogs opposing it along with the Republicans, as well as some hard-Left Representatives that oppose FISA reform outright.
Why did Pelosi tube the bill that would have easily passed and therefore extended the protections passed by a Democratic Congress last year? Lots of reasons, and they're all green:
The recess by House Democrats amounts to a judgment that losing the generous support of trial lawyers, the Democratic Party's most important financial base, would be more dangerous than losing the anti-terrorist issue to Republicans. Dozens of lawsuits have been filed against the phone companies for giving individuals' personal information to intelligence agencies without a warrant. Mike McConnell, the nonpartisan director of national intelligence, says delay in congressional action deters cooperation in detecting terrorism.
Big money is involved. Amanda Carpenter, a Townhall.com columnist, has prepared a spreadsheet showing that 66 trial lawyers representing plaintiffs in the telecommunications suits have contributed $1.5 million to Democratic senators and causes. Of the 29 Democratic senators who voted against the FISA bill last Tuesday, 24 took money from the trial lawyers (as did two absent senators, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama). Eric A. Isaacson of San Diego, one of the telecommunications plaintiffs' lawyers, contributed to the recent unsuccessful presidential campaign of Sen. Chris Dodd, who led the Senate fight against the bill containing immunity.
The bill passed the Senate 68 to 29, with 19 Democrats voting aye. They included intelligence committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller and three senators who defeated Republican incumbents in the 2006 Democratic takeover of Congress: Claire McCaskill of Missouri, Jim Webb of Virginia and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island.
Of course, people will claim that the Republicans supported telecom immunity for the same reasons -- for the contributions. Unfortunately, two arguments work against that. The Senate bill passed with bipartisan support, with Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) leading the way for immunity. Second, the telecom industry contributes almost equally to both parties. Open Secrets shows that 53% of all 2008 contributions from the telecoms go to Republicans, and 47% to Democrats.
In contrast, lawyers contribute a much larger amount of money overall, and direct much more of it to the Democrats. While the telecoms only have sent $3.1 million in overall contributions anywhere, lawyers have already contributed over $82 million. Just in their PAC funding, lawyers have spend almost twice as much as the telecoms, $6.1 million. Over 77% of that money went to Democrats.
When people wonder who has the ear of the Democratic Party, the answer is quite clear. Trial lawyers want immunity stopped so that they can participate in big paydays, and they're willing to invest in the Democrats now to preserve them.