WASHINGTON -- Senator Russell Feingold was a lonely man yesterday.
Of his seven Democratic colleagues on the Senate Judiciary Committee, only two showed up for the committee's hearing on Feingold's call for a censure of President Bush. One of them -- Feingold's fellow Wisconsin Democrat, Herb Kohl -- ducked out early without uttering a word.
So Feingold sat amid a sea of empty chairs in the hearing room, withstanding a withering Republican barrage. GOP lawmakers took turns branding Feingold's resolution ''irresponsible," ''inappropriate," ''excessive," ''perverse," ''false," ''surreal," ''beyond the pale," and ''destructive."
''I can only hope that this constitutionally suspect and, I believe, inflammatory attempt to punish the president for leading this war on terror will not weaken his ability to do so," declared Senator Orrin Hatch, Republican of Utah.
Feingold's resolution has no chance of passing in the Republican-controlled Congress. Only two Democrats have signed on as cosponsors, and party leaders, fearful of rallying Bush's supporters with direct attacks on the president, have resisted the GOP's offers to bring the resolution to the Senate floor.
Still, yesterday's hearing was an extraordinary display of political theater.
Watergate cast a long shadow, with a key figure from that scandal lending his weight to Feingold's censure quest. Republicans held firm in their support for Bush, but the debate revealed lingering tensions over the president's 2001 decision to bypass the federal court system and authorize warrant-less eavesdropping on people in the United States.
Feingold, who is mulling a presidential run in 2008, didn't back down from Republicans' broadsides. He accused Bush of moving the country toward a monarchy with his decision to circumvent the process by which a secret court authorizes federal agents to intercept communications involving suspected terrorists.
''The president must return to the law," he said. ''What we have here, I think, is one of the greatest attempts to dismantle our system of government that we have seen in the history of our country."
To back him up, Feingold trotted out his star witness: John W. Dean, President Nixon's White House counsel. Dean spent four months behind bars for his role in covering up the Watergate scandal.
Dean made his first congressional testimony since Watergate a memorable one. He endorsed Feingold's call for a formal admonishment of Bush, which was something less than a surprise; Dean wrote the 2004 book, ''Worse than Watergate: The Secret Presidency of George W. Bush."
''I have probably more experience firsthand than anybody might want in what can go wrong, and how a president can get on the other side of the law," Dean told committee members. ''Had a censure resolution been issued about some of Nixon's conduct long before it erupted to the degree and the problem that came, it would have been a godsend."
The Watergate reference opened the door to the day's testiest exchange.
Senator Lindsey O. Graham, a South Carolina Republican, said Bush endorsed a debatable legal theory when he authorized the secret wiretaps. But Nixon and Dean, Graham said, were involved in patently illegal acts for which there were no legal justifications.
''Nobody read the Constitution to say that Richard Nixon and you could break into somebody's private offices," Graham told Dean. ''Isn't there a big difference between knowingly breaking the law -- burglarizing somebody's office -- and having a real debate about where authority begins and ends?"
Dean: ''Nixon didn't authorize the break-in."
Graham: ''Did he cover up a crime that he knew to be a crime?"
Dean shot back: ''He covered it up for national security reasons."
''Give me a break," Graham snapped. ''He covered it up to save his hide."
Defenses of Bush aside, several Republicans made clear yesterday that they're still not comfortable with the secret eavesdropping program. Graham reiterated his belief that the White House must work with Congress to bring new oversight to the program and draft a system that fits more comfortably within the law.
''The middle ground to me is the Congress and the president working together," Graham said.
Senator Arlen Specter, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, agreed that the censure resolution has ''no merit." But he said he hoped the hearing would prompt more discussion about whether Bush's actions were legal.
''It provides a forum for the discussion of issues which really ought to be considered in greater depth than they have been," said Specter, a Pennsylvania Republican.
For his part, Feingold said he saw ''no significance" in the large number of Democratic no-shows at yesterday's hearing, noting that senators often skip Friday meetings to return to their home states.
He said he took heart in the fact that the Judiciary Committee's ranking Democrat, Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont, said yesterday that he is ''inclined to believe" that censure is appropriate. Feingold said he still wants the censure motion brought before the full Senate.
''The assertions that are being made by the White House here would probably have made the Nixon White House blush," he said. ''This matter can be alive for a very long time."