But sometimes, his approach nets gains: His decision to block an earlier intelligence authorization bill over provisions aimed at cracking down on leaks resulted in the panel stripping the language so that it could advance on the Senate floor.
He also led the successful fight against a Senate anti-piracy measure that he said would impinge on free speech. Initially, the bill had broad Senate support, but later it was stalled by a grass-roots opposition campaign that saw numerous senators pull their backing.
Wyden’s stances have made him especially popular with civil liberties groups that have suffered a number of setbacks to their agendas as the federal government has sought new powers to hunt down terrorist suspects.
Michelle Richardson, legislative counsel in the American Civil Liberties Union’s Washington office, said Wyden has stepped into a leadership void on balancing civil liberties with national security needs left by the departure of former Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis.
Wyden’s approach, Richardson said, has been to try to enlist others in his cause. His staff has offered classified briefings to senators at times, and she said he has “serious intelligence chops” that make his peers take him seriously.
“There are probably a lot of people who you could say are a great lone voice or always vote the right way,” she said. “It’s another thing altogether if they’re good at organizing people to follow them.”
The holds he has placed on national security bills are not motivated by an urge just to arbitrarily block them, said Sharon Bradford Franklin, senior counsel for the Constitution Project.
“It’s very helpful for him to raise the profile and ask the Senate to not rush consideration of these bills when there are very serious civil liberties concerns,” Franklin said. Wyden’s hold on the extension of the 2008 surveillance law means the Senate will have to set aside floor time to debate the bill and consider amendments, a move Wyden said he welcomed.
Because of his state’s political demographics, a mix of urban liberalism and rural libertarianism, Wyden can be aggressive in his defense of civil liberties without facing loud charges from constituents that he is “soft on terrorism,” said Jake Weigler, who managed Wyden’s 2010 reelection campaign and now works for the public affairs firm Strategies 360.
“He grew up with those values, but sees them reflected in his home state,” he said. “It allows him to be more outspoken than senators in other states where it would be a political liability.”
Wyden said he inherited some of his civil liberties views from his father, a journalist. But he also said he has grown more worried recently about the balance between national security and civil liberties.
“I’ve come to feel in the last couple years that the constitutional teeter-totter is out of whack,” he said.