WASHINGTON – While only two Democrats in the Senate have embraced Sen. Russ Feingold's call for censuring President Bush, the idea is increasing his standing among many Democratic voters as he ponders a bid for the party's presidential nomination in 2008.
Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, insists his proposal has nothing to do with his political ambitions. But he does challenge Democrats who argue it will help energize Republicans.
"Those Democrats said that within two minutes of my announcing my idea," Feingold said in a telephone interview last week. "I don't see any serious evidence of that."
A Newsweek poll taken March 16-17 found that 50 percent of those surveyed opposed censuring Bush while 42 percent supported it, but among Democrats, 60 percent favored the effort.
Feingold's resolution would censure the president for authorizing a warrantless surveillance program, which the senator contends is illegal. Co-sponsors are Democratic Sens. Tom Harkin of Iowa and Barbara Boxer of California.
Other Democrats have said bringing up such a punishment is not helpful before an investigation of the eavesdropping program is complete.
"I think to say that you should censure the president before you have had the inquiries is premature, so I don't think it's helpful to reach that conclusion at this point," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told "FOX News Sunday."
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., agreed that it is too early to consider censure. He would not, however, rule out voting for such a measure if the Bush administration stonewalls a congressional investigation.
"It's a close case," Kennedy said on CBS's "Face the Nation."
The White House argues that Bush was authorized to order eavesdropping on American citizens under his wartime powers as commander in chief.
Feingold said his sole purpose was to hold Bush accountable, but he argued that it's also good politics.
"These Democratic pundits are all scared of the Republican base getting energized, but they're willing to pay the price of not energizing the Democratic base," he said. "It's an overly defensive and meek approach to politics."
Some Democrats have accused Feingold of putting his 2008 presidential ambitions over helping Democrats try to recapture the House and Senate in this year's midterm elections. Should Feingold run, his opposition to the war in Iraq, the Patriot Act and the spying program would help position him as the liberal candidate.
Many also see his effort as a distraction at a time when the administration was on the ropes over Iraq and a since-scuttled port deal.
"It just takes us off discussions we ought to be having in this country on issues that really matter in people's lives," said Rep. Sherrod Brown, a liberal Democrat from Ohio who is running for Senate.
Some Republicans have been thanking Feingold for what they consider a political fumble.
"This is such a gift," Rush Limbaugh said on his radio show. The National Review came to the same conclusion. In an online editorial titled, "Feingold's Gift to the GOP," the conservative magazine wrote that Republican National Committee chairman Ken Mehlman would hug Feingold if given the chance.
The Republican-controlled Senate Judiciary Committee has scheduled a hearing Friday on Feingold's resolution.
Mehlman, visiting Wisconsin last week, skipped the hug and instead criticized Feingold. That reinforced an RNC radio ad buy in the state, in which a narrator says, "Call Russ Feingold and ask him why he's more interested in censuring the president than protecting our freedom."
Feingold's response, essentially, is bring it on.
"I welcome their attempt to make a campaign issue of the question of whether there will be accountability for the president's breaking the law," he said. "They will remind people every minute that the president thumbed his nose at the law."