WASHINGTON – Although President Bush's authorization of warrantless wiretaps is likely an impeachable offense, Sen. Russ Feingold hopes to be a "voice of moderation" in not pushing the Senate toward that option, the Wisconsin Democrat said Thursday.
"I think it is right in the strike zone of what the Founding Fathers talked about when they talked about high crimes and misdemeanors," said Feingold, who introduced a resolution on Monday to censure the president for his authorizing the National Security Agency 's electronic terrorist surveillance program.
"The Constitution does not require us to go down that road. And I hope that in a sense I'm a voice of moderation on this point where I'm saying it may not be good for the country to do this. It may not be good for the country in a time of war to remove the president from office even though he's surely done something wrong. But what we can't do is just ignore it, the wrongful conduct so this is a reasonable road."
The 2008 presidential hopeful definitely is not ignoring what he considers "wrongful conduct." In his resolution, Feingold accuses Bush of violating the Constitution and the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.
Originally, the censure resolution failed to garner any co-sponsors. But Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barbara Boxer of California on Wednesday bucked their Democratic colleagues, who argue any vote on censure is "premature."
Republicans like to note that most Democrats have tried to stay as far as possible from the Feingold measure. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., offered to have a vote on the measure immediately, saying, "We looked around and see all these Democratic senators with bags over their heads. They didn't want any part of this."
But Harkin said he supports the Feingold move because he wants "to help get to the bottom of what the president has done. We have no idea how widespread this program is, who's been affected."
Prior to Harkin's and Boxer's support, Feingold said he was "amazed" at Democrats who refused to take a stand against the president's wiretap authority. Democrats are "cowering with this president's numbers so low," he said.
Feingold on Thursday said he hopes others will review his measure and "listen to their constituents back home" as Congress heads into a weeklong recess before returning on March 27.
The senator said that while he was seeking "a way to help us positively resolve this issue," he was also "seeking a pledge from the president that he's going to come within the law or make proposals to change the law to allow it."
Feingold said he wanted to counter the Washington "spin machine" and he had this warning for Republican attackers: "If the right wing really believes in this country — that Rush Limbaugh and others — that they can somehow turn the president's reputation around by saying 'You're darn right he violated the law, and it's a good thing,' I think they're just as confused as they are about their Iraq policy. People aren't buying it any more. Not only do I not regret it, I felt an absolute obligation to do it."
But one online grassroots conservative organization, Grassfire.org, which claims 1 million active participants, said Feingold should be the one to be censured. A petition circulated by the group says signers are expressing "disappointment and outrage" by Feingold's action.
"Such actions during a time of war are unfounded and irresponsible, and as such put our troops and our nation further at risk. I urge the Senate to reject Sen. Feingold's call for censure. Also, I am calling on Senate leadership to formally censure Sen. Feingold for his actions. It is fully within the authority of the Senate to censure its own as a formal statement of disapproval of a senator's actions," the petition reads.
Taking a different approach, Rep. Tom DeLay, appearing on FOX News Talks' "Tony Snow Show," said Feingold's motion was "the most brilliant move" the senator had ever made and ridiculed it as a Democratic gift that keeps on giving.
Feingold said he will wait a "reasonable amount of time" to call up the measure for a vote, preferably within a couple of months. He wants hearings to be held in the Senate Judiciary Committee first, but that isn't likely to happen.
One member from Feingold's party, Rep. Rahm Emanuel, D-Ill., said censure doesn't exist in the Constitution, oversight does, and Congress's failure to perform its oversight functions amounts to a rubber stamp of the president's actions.
Emanuel went on to offer many reasons why censure of Congress would be appropriate.
"If you were going to do a censure, which doesn't exist in the Constitution, I would censure for not having a minimum wage increase every 10 years, I'd have a censure for not having a health care policy that addresses the uninsured. So that's my view, censure doesn't exist in the Constitution, oversight does and I'd like to have the Congress do its job it hasn't done," he said.
While he's taking some heat from his own party for bringing up such a seemingly drastic measure, Feingold said he's confident his actions are in the country's best interest.
"Of course, I want to minimize any problems this causes for the Democrats, but in the long run, I am convinced that this will be part of a broader message that an administration that is incompetent, dishonest and doesn't respect the law basically means that we should have a different kind of an administration," he said.
The NSA program has been the source of much controversy in Washington since it was revealed by The New York Times that the super-secret agency had been authorized by the White House to conduct warrantless wiretaps of people within the United States who were believed to have been communicating with Al Qaeda or other terror suspects overseas. The agency is not wiretapping domestic-to-domestic calls, the administration says.
Congress has called for more oversight of the program and some Democrats have called for an end to it altogether. One of the newly briefed lawmakers, Sen. Mike DeWine, R-Ohio, went to the NSA this week to see the program up close.
"If every American could go out there and see what I saw last night, they would be very, very impressed," he said Wednesday. "I just can't believe that anyone would believe that this program should not continue. It is essential to our safety; it is essential to our national security."
FOX News' Jim Angle and Trish Turner contributed to this report.