Underplayed Story of the Day

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On A2 of my dead-tree edition of the Washington Post and all the way back on A13 of the Washington Edition of the New York Times are the stories of the House vote yesterday to defy the President on terrorist surveillance legislation, and specifically, Bush’s insistence that the telecommunications companies that participated in the program be given retroactive immunity. The issue here has been less about the liability of the companies, which are the target of some 40 lawsuits, than it has been about bringing more scrutiny to the program itself.

The House then left town for two weeks, which means this issue will be left hanging for that long–and possibly much longer. Both stories worth reading, as they suggest the beginning of what could be a political sea change on this issue. More on that after the jump.

As Jonathan Weisman notes in the Post:

Since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, such showdowns have followed a predictable path: After some protests, Democrats have given in to White House demands, fearing the political fallout as Bush hammered them for allegedly endangering American lives.

Last month, the Senate appeared to follow that script when it passed, with bipartisan support, a surveillance bill to Bush’s liking after turning back the efforts of some Democrats to strip out the immunity provision and strengthen privacy protections.

Bush appeared on the White House’s South Lawn Thursday to demand House passage of the Senate legislation, warning lawmakers: “The American people understand the stakes in this struggle. They want their children to be safe from terror.”

Then the House went off script. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) responded by all but calling the president a liar.

“We understand our responsibility to protect the American people. What the president is trying to do is something that we think should be stopped,” she said. “I am stating a fact. The president is wrong, and he knows it.”

In the NYT, Eric Lichtblau has this quote from the ACLU’s Caroline Fredrickson explaining the potential significance:

Speaking of Mr. Bush, Ms. Fredrickson said Democrats were “starting to recognize that his arguments don’t have the potency they once did and they can vote their consciences.”

Key to this narrow victory (which is far short of a veto-proof majority) was a significant shift among conservative Democrats, including those who are likely to be most vulnerable in this year’s election.:

But Representative Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican on the House Intelligence Committee, said the Democratic measure would weaken national security and deprive intelligence officials of vital surveillance tools.

That argument had initially held sway with 21 conservative Democrats who are members of the so-called blue dog caucus and signed a letter in February favoring the idea of immunity for the phone companies. But in Friday’s vote, 14 of the blue dogs ended up voting for the Democratic plan to reject retroactive immunity and instead to let the federal courts decide the liability issue.

The vote came after the House, at the insistence of GOP leaders, held its first secret session (stunt alert!) in since 1983.