The Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing Friday that neither most Democrats nor Republicans take seriously -- but that could mark a grave turn in the debate over President Bush's conduct of the Iraq war.
The subject: The proposal of Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to censure Bush.
Historically, such major political confrontations begin slowly, like the unraveling of a knitted sleeve. One snag leads to another, unstoppable, until the sweater is no longer whole. In the beginning, it doesn't look like a big deal. But it can quickly become one.
The committee chairman, that perpetually beleaguered Arlen Specter, R-Pa., is responding to political pressure to address Feingold's measure, which takes aim at Bush for authorizing secret electronic eavesdropping on U.S. citizens without warrants.
The partisan shove comes from Republicans, who think the proposal a wonderful distraction from Bush's other problems and therefore a plus for their party. Democrats, who would prefer to discuss GOP ethics violations and lagging support for the Iraq war, are skittish about it because they are afraid the whole thing could look like a witch hunt.
Feingold thinks there really is a witch in the White House and voters ought to go after him. He is also a potential 2008 presidential candidate, which may mean this is motivated as much by individual grandstanding as legitimate anger over what many see as the president's illegal power-grab to snoop on innocent citizens.
Whatever his motivation, however, Feingold has elevated the spreading general criticism of the Iraq war and the president's insistence on secrecy into a serious discussion of whether Bush broke the law.
Since so much of what is going on behind the scenes in this administration is classified, outsiders cannot know whether the snooping is really confined to national security purposes or amounts to a politically inspired fishing expedition.
We simply don't have enough information to judge whether what the president is doing is illegal or justified by vague presidential authority granted post-9/11.
Actually, Feingold easily could have expanded his rationale for censure beyond the secret surveillance program to questions about the administration's misleading statements on Iraq's non-existent weapons of mass destruction and connections to 9/11.
The latest damning accusations come from a British memo claiming that Bush discussed with Prime Minister Tony Blair how to provoke a confrontation with Saddam Hussein to justify an unjustifiable war. One suggestion was to paint a U.S. surveillance plane with United Nations markings and fly it over Iraq to draw Iraqi fire. Another was to assassinate Saddam.
Surely the possibility that these amoral proposals were seriously considered deserves to be carefully examined in public congressional hearings. But we forget.
Outrage is out of style in Washington's all-GOP environment. Under the lapdog Republican Congress that Bush has enjoyed until very recently, no member of the majority that controls the chairmanships and subpoena power has strongly criticized him and certainly nobody has investigated him.
The war is making the GOP itchy, but officials are not yet ready to blame him directly.
What Feingold suggests is actually a lot less draconian than the impeachment process the Republicans launched against President Clinton, their Democratic nemesis. Censure would be an embarrassment but it carries no heavy fines, loss of job or jail time. The impeachment farce was unpopular but it thrilled the GOP conservative base.
The cry then was: "No president is above the law." But now the cry has changed when it is one of their own who has messed up.
Clinton messed up with an intern and nobody died; Bush has messed up a whole country, and hordes of Iraqis and Americans have died. So why isn't censure a legitimate and timely topic?
Democrats, except those on the excitable left, are nervous about going too far. Only two other senators, Barbara Boxer of California and Tom Harkin of Iowa, have dared to endorse the Feingold proposal. But the subject is out in the open now.
"We owe it to the people to determine what went on before we decide what we will do," Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I, said mildly. Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., was firmer. "Based on what I know," he said, "what Bush is doing is illegal."
But Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, is determined to let Bush do whatever he wants and tell us nothing.
"I think the program is lawful," he snapped. "You don't have any civil liberties if you're dead."
Roberts said officials talked to senators on the need for government secrecy in briefings behind closed doors "where it should be."
Reed countered that the briefings were inadequate and access to classified information was too constrained. And, he added, that culture of secrecy is hurting the president.
And there you have it. Bow before the GOP establishment or unravel the sleeve. Go for it, guys.
Marianne Means is a Washington, D.C., columnist with Hearst Newspapers.
© 2006 Hearst Newspapers