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The Wyden Holdup: A Liberal's Firm Stand

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Because of his state’s mix of liberalism and libertarianism, Wyden can be aggressive in his defense of civil liberties without charges from constituents that he is “soft on terrorism.”

Sen. Ron Wyden insists he doesn’t have a grudge against fellow Democrat Dianne Feinstein of California. What he does have, though, is a hold on her two legislative priorities of the lame-duck session — and he has, in fact, placed a hold on every major bill coming out of her Intelligence Committee in the past two years.

Wyden’s moves to block the two latest bills — a spy agency reauthorization measure (S 3454) aimed at cracking down on leaks and an extension of expiring surveillance provisions from a 2008 law — are the newest demonstrations of how the Oregon Democrat has become the Senate’s hardest line to cross on civil liberties issues in the national security arena.

Wyden said he considers Feinstein a friend and that he has more in common with her than not as a member of her committee. And his stances aren’t about liberal versus conservative, he insisted, pointing to a record of working with Republicans on a variety of topics from taxes to health care. Indeed, the update of the 2008 surveillance law (S 3276) is even an Obama administration priority.

“I always start with the proposition that you try to find common ground,” he said. “Sometimes you have to stand alone. And often, when you stand alone on day one, as the debate evolves, you see how things — as you make your case — in effect come around your way, both in terms of policy and politics.”

Feinstein also emphasized her friendship with Wyden and said they have usually sorted out their differences. But that doesn’t mean the chairwoman of the Intelligence panel likes watching him slow her committee’s agenda. The 2008 law’s surveillance provisions, for instance, are set to expire at the end of 2012.

“It becomes a bit more difficult,” she said. “Ron has a position, and I respect that position. The majority of the committee feels differently, often a dominant majority.” Because several of the bills he has blocked emerged with near-unanimous support, she said she would prefer that he use “discretion” when he places a hold on legislation.

Even when Wyden isn’t blocking a national security bill over civil liberties issues, he is often a lonely voice of opposition. He was one of just five Democrats who voted Nov. 14 against advancing a cybersecurity bill (S 3414) backed by his party’s leadership and President Barack Obama. He has been among a small handful of Democratic senators seeking the Obama administration’s legal justification for the targeted killing of U.S. citizens suspected of being overseas terrorists, requests he said have gone unfulfilled.

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