GOP division over NSA searches

GOP DIVISION OVER NSA SEARCHES….Sen. Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) is hardly among the chamber’s more liberal Republicans, but he’s certainly been willing to break with the administration more and more lately. In just the last month, Lugar has criticized the Bush administration’s practice of paying Iraqi news outlets to publish American propaganda, and has told Newsweek that Bush should be more like Bill Clinton when it comes to being exposed to a variety competing ideas.

Better yet, yesterday Lugar became the latest Republican senator to echo the call for congressional hearings into Bush’s warrantless-search program. For those keeping score at home, that raises the total number of Senate Republicans to back hearings to explore this controversy to five: Specter (Pa.), Graham (S.C.), Hagel (Neb.), Snowe (Maine), and now Lugar. It’s something to consider when the issue is characterized as a partisan fight.

Of course, for nearly every Republican senator who supports hearings, there’s another pushing in the other direction. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) has helped lead the way in carrying water for Bush, though Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined the fun yesterday, arguing on Fox News that the warrantless-search program was a legitimate use of presidential power because “the president believes very, very strongly that he has the constitutional authority.” And, obviously, if Bush feels “very, very strongly” that he’s right, it must be so.

The division within the GOP ranks notwithstanding, the next big challenge is determining which Senate committee chairman will get to host the hearings: Arlen Specter or Pat Roberts. Time reports this week that the White House is hoping to convince Specter to forgo Judiciary Committee hearings and defer the matter to the Intelligence Committee. In fact, Time quoted a GOP official saying that the White House is “going to lean on Specter very hard not to hold hearings.”

This makes perfect sense. If the Judiciary Committee investigates the controversy, the White House will have to endure a very public grilling at the hands of a relatively moderate committee chairman who’s already suggested he thinks the president has gone too far.

If the Intelligence Committee investigates the controversy, the White House can take comfort in the fact that the hearings would be behind closed doors and the testimony would be classified. Instead of a committee led by a moderate skeptic, the Intelligence Committee is chaired by a partisan hack who’s already announced his belief that the administration’s conduct in this matter is perfectly legal.

If you’re the Bush White House, which of these would you prefer?