How Long Will They Play Nice?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, January 24, 2008; 12:56 PM

The sudden, smiling truce between President Bush and congressional Democrats is unlikely to last beyond what appears to be their agreement on a massive election-year tax-dollar giveaway.

Both sides relish the prospect of bathing in a little public goodwill -- who doesn't like getting a check from the government? -- but it's entirely unclear how effective their economic stimulus package will be at achieving its stated goal of staving off a recession.

And the stimulus agreement looks like just a brief respite from what's shaping up to be another session of bloody battles in which an increasingly lame-duck president still somehow manages to consistently beat a feeble Democratic majority into submission.

Jonathan Weisman writes for The Washington Post with the latest news: "Congressional leaders and the White House reached tentative agreement today on a roughly $145 billion economic stimulus package that would quickly send payments to the poor and middle class while offering businesses one-time incentives to invest in new equipment and write off tax losses.

"The deal, reached after an arduous, late-night negotiation between House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) and Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr., was a work of difficult compromise. Democrats acceded to Republican demands, jettisoning plans to extend unemployment benefits and food stamps for now but concluding that they could revisit the issue if the economy continues to slide.

"Republicans agreed to offer rebates as large as $1,000, even to working families that earn too little to pay income tax, an idea they had roundly rejected in past stimulus plans."

But as Weisman and Peter Baker wrote in this morning's Post, "unrelated disputes threatened to divide President Bush and Democratic congressional leaders as they are seeking to remain unified on the economy. House Democrats tried and failed yesterday to override Bush's veto of an expansion of a children's health-care program, while Senate Democrats tried to block the permanent extension of the government's authority to eavesdrop on terrorism suspects without warrants. . . .

"There were signs that both sides were trying to avoid at least some provocations until an economic package is passed. House Democrats decided to hold off any action on contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet E. Miers over the investigation of the firings of U.S. attorneys. . . .

"But some top lawmakers quickly returned to the partisan scrapping of last year. House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) called a news conference to denounce the seven years of Bush's stewardship, which have been marked, he said, by slow job growth, a mounting federal debt, sliding household incomes and a plunging world public opinion of the United States. . . .

"And the White House risked the ire of Senate Democrats by renominating Steven G. Bradbury as assistant attorney general despite lawmakers' refusal to confirm him because he signed off on memos authorizing harsh interrogation techniques of terrorism suspects."

The White House also sent Vice President Cheney out yesterday to accuse Democrats -- at least those opposed to granting immunity for telecom companies that enabled warrantless wiretaps -- of having forgotten the lessons of Sept. 11.

Mike Soraghan writes in the Hill: "President Bush's last State of the Union address next week will feature four big themes: fixing the economy, renewal of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), recent successes in Iraq and ratification of trade agreements.

"Political insiders say those priorities will allow Bush to focus on areas where he's been able to forge bipartisan agreement or else gain a significant advantage over the Democratic-led Congress. . . .

"Bush's speech on Monday will have a different feel than his previous State of the Union addresses, as he will temporarily wrest the spotlight from the presidential candidates -- even though his successor may be in the audience. The mood in the House chamber is unlikely to be warm and nostalgic; Bush will address a Congress he's bullied, beguiled and bedeviled."

A Veto Sustained

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "House Democrats failed for the second time in nearly four months yesterday to override President Bush's veto of a proposed $35 billion expansion of the State Children's Health Insurance Program.

"The 260 to 152 tally left backers of the legislation about 15 votes short of the two-thirds majority of lawmakers voting necessary to override the president's Dec. 12 veto. Forty-two Republicans supported the override attempt, two fewer than in the previous effort to reject Bush's Oct. 3 veto of an earlier version of the bill."

The FISA Fight

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "The White House is trying to force a political confrontation this week over the terrorist surveillance issue -- threatening to label congressional Democrats as soft on national security unless they quickly approve a new bill that would gave the U.S. intelligence community vastly enhanced spying powers. The bill includes a hotly contested provision that would grant blanket immunity to telecommunications companies facing lawsuits for cooperating with intel agencies after the 9/11 attacks. The aggressive new White House position reflects a political assessment that, with the fall elections approaching, the administration has the upper hand on an issue that has proved sharply contentious for nearly a year, according to Republican aides and lawyers familiar with administration thinking."

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "Most House Democrats and civil liberties groups strongly oppose immunity for the communications firms, but other Democrats -- including John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate intelligence committee -- have backed the GOP position."

Cheney v. Dodd

Here's Cheney talking about FISA to a friendly audience at the Heritage Foundation yesterday: "[T]he relative safety of the six years and four months since 9/11 is not an accident. It's an achievement. And the achievement is the product of some very hard work by Americans in intelligence, in law enforcement, and the military -- and some wise decisions by the President of the United States."

He trotted out a typically disingenuous straw man: "Fighting the war on terror is a long-term enterprise that requires long-term, institutional changes. The challenge to the country has not expired over the last six months. It won't expire any time soon -- and we should not write laws that pretend otherwise."

He accused those who oppose blanket immunity of inviting another 9/11: "Liability protection, retroactive to 9/11, is the right thing to do. It's the right way to help us prevent another 9/11 down the road."

Then he accused opponents of having forgotten the lessons of 9/11: "Not long ago, President Bush said that he 'knew full well that if we were successful protecting the country that the lessons of September 11th would become dimmer and dimmer in some people's minds.' . . .

"Most of us understand the war is real, that we need to stay on the offensive, and that we have to proceed on many fronts at the same time. And if any of us ever lacks for inspiration, we need only look to the men and women doing the toughest work of all, 6,000 or more miles from home."

Bush himself issued a statement on FISA today, declaring: "Congress' action - or lack of action - on this important issue will directly affect our ability to keep Americans safe."

By contrast, Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) is vowing to stage a real-life, in-person, " Mr Smith Goes to Washington"-style filibuster to block any version of the bill that includes immunity. In a statement yesterday, Dodd said: "Few things are more detrimental to this country than the erosion of and attack on the civil liberties we enjoy. This isn't a Democratic issue or a Republican issue; this is an American issue. If after debate, the Senate appears ready to pass legislation granting telecom providers retroactive immunity I will use any and all legislative tools at my disposal, including a filibuster, to prevent this deeply flawed bill from becoming law. More and more, Americans are rejecting the false choice that has come to define this administration: security or liberty, but never, ever both. For all those who have stood with me throughout this fight, I pledge, once more, to stand up for you."

Advantage Cheney

But all signs point to the Democrats eventually cracking under pressure. The fault lines are already clear.

Eric Lichtblau writes in the New York Times: "Advocates for civil liberties fault the Senate majority leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, for what they see as a weak effort to block the White House immunity plan. Mr. Reid opposes immunity, but his decision to allow an initial vote on the Intelligence Committee plan, with immunity, has angered opponents.

"'If Senator Reid wanted to win, he would have put the [Judiciary Committee bill] on the floor first,' Caroline Frederickson, director of the Washington legislative office of the American Civil Liberties Union, said. 'It seems as if he wants to lose.'"

Thomas Ferraro writes for Reuters: "The Democratic-led U.S. Senate will approve President George W. Bush's demand that telephone companies that participated in his warrantless domestic spying program receive retroactive immunity from lawsuits, a top lawmaker predicted on Wednesday.

"'I think we will prevail,' Senate Intelligence Committee Chairman John Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat and a chief sponsor of the bill, told reporters. . . .

"Top congressional aides agreed with Rockefeller's assessment. . .

"'It's a pretty bad idea to appear cocky,' Rockefeller said. But he noted that the measure was approved by his committee in October on a 13-2 vote. 'That's pretty solid.'"

Rockefeller was further quoted by Daniel W. Reilly in the Politico as defending the telecom companies, "arguing that the companies received explicit orders from the National Security Agency to cooperate with the super-secret surveillance effort. The West Virginia Democrat said the telecom companies were being 'pushed by the government, compelled by the government, required by the government to do this."

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald is agog at Rockefeller's statements: "Can someone please tell Jay Rockefeller that we don't actually live in a country where the President has the definitively dictatorial power to 'compel' and 'require' private actors to break the law by 'ordering' them to do so? Like all other lawbreakers, telecoms broke the law because they chose to, and profited greatly as a result. That telecoms had an option is too obvious to require proof, but conclusive proof can be found in the fact that some telecoms did refuse to comply on the grounds that doing so was against the law.

"There is a branch of Government that does have the power to compel and require behavior by private actors. It's called 'the American people,' acting through their Congress, who democratically enact laws regulating that behavior. And the American people enacted multiple laws making it illegal for telecoms, in absence of a warrant, to enable Government spying on their customers and to turn over private data. Rockefeller's claimed belief that we live in a country where private companies are 'compelled' to obey orders to break the law is either indescribably authoritarian or disgustingly dishonest -- probably both."

Michael Isikoff and Mark Hosenball write for Newsweek: "Even if the Senate does eventually pass a measure favorable to the White House, there is no guarantee the House of Representatives will go along with it. House Democrats have been working on their own surveillance bill. It omits immunity and other legal relief for telecom companies and also contains what some Democrats regard as necessary new safeguards to protect citizens against intelligence agency abuses."

And yet: "Some administration supporters on Capitol Hill say that they expect House Democrats and other opponents of the administration's position to wilt under pressure as the White House steps up its effort to portray Democrats as obstructionists in the war on terror. It's a tactic the White House has used effectively in the past--most recently last summer, when President Bush pressured Democrats into passing the temporary surveillance bill that is about to expire. Apparently he believes it will work at least one more time."

Torture Watch

Cheney also weighed in yesterday on the CIA's use of interrogation practices widely seen as torture: "The procedures of the CIA program are designed to be safe. They are in full compliance with the nation's laws and treaty obligations. They've been carefully reviewed by the Department of Justice, and they are very carefully monitored. The program is run by highly trained professionals who understand their obligations under the law. And the program has uncovered a wealth of information that has foiled attacks against the United States; information that has saved countless, innocent lives."

But, as I've noted many times, neither Cheney nor Bush have ever provided an example of even one life saved as a direct result of those interrogation tactics.

The Bradbury Gambit

Philip Shenon and Eric Lichtblau write in the New York Times: "The Justice Department lawyer who wrote a series of classified legal opinions in 2005 authorizing harsh C.I.A. interrogation techniques was renominated by the White House on Wednesday to a senior department post, a move that was seen as a snub to Senate Democrats who have long opposed his appointment.

"The lawyer, Steven G. Bradbury, who has run the department's Office of Legal Counsel without Senate confirmation for more than two years, has been repeatedly nominated to the job of assistant attorney general for legal counsel. . . .

"Late last year, Democrats urged the White House to withdraw Mr. Bradbury's name once and for all and find a new candidate for the post after it was disclosed in news reports in October that he was the author of classified memorandums that gave approval to harsh interrogation techniques, including head slapping, exposure to cold and simulated drowning, even when used in combination.

"Mr. Bradbury's memorandums were described by Democrats as an effort by the Bush administration to circumvent laws prohibiting torture and to undermine a public legal opinion issued by the Justice Department in 2004 that declared torture to be 'abhorrent.' . . .

"Joe Shoemaker, a spokesman for Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, said that by putting Mr. Bradbury's name forward again as a nominee, 'the president has thumbed his nose at Congress and chosen an individual who has been involved in authorizing some of the most controversial policies of this administration.'"

Bradbury has become the polished front-man for Cheney and his notoriously bullheaded aide David S. Addington

As Scott Shane, David Johnston and James Risen wrote when they disclosed the existence of the Bradbury memos last October in the New York Times, Bradbury "has become a frequent public defender of the National Security Agency's domestic surveillance program and detention policies at Congressional hearings and press briefings, a role that some legal scholars say is at odds with the office's tradition of avoiding political advocacy."

The Times wrote: "At interagency meetings on detention and interrogation. . . . Mr. Bradbury appeared to be 'fundamentally sympathetic to what the White House and the C.I.A. wanted to do,' recalled Philip Zelikow, a former top State Department official. . . . Mr. Addington was at times 'vituperative,' said Mr. Zelikow, but Mr. Bradbury, while taking similar positions, was 'professional and collegial.'"

The specter of Bush granting Bradbury a recess appointment is one of the main reasons Senate Democrats have avoided going into recess.

Some of Bradbury's other greatest hits:

Mark Hosenball wrote for Newsweek in February 2006: "In the latest twist in the debate over presidential powers, a Justice Department official suggested that in certain circumstances, the president might have the power to order the killing of terrorist suspects inside the United States." That was Bradbury.

Dana Milbank wrote in The Washington Post in July 2006: "As Congress opened hearings yesterday on the treatment of terrorism detainees, the Bush administration's view was neatly summarized by Steven Bradbury, the Justice Department lawyer serving as lead witness. 'The president,' Bradbury said, 'is always right."

(The next day, Bradbury called that a "tongue-in-cheek comment.")

Last summer, when the White House declared that political guru Karl Rove had absolute immunity from congressional oversight (see my August 2 column), White House counsel Fred Fielding wrote that he based his position on an opinion by Bradbury.

There was some speculation when Michael Mukasey took over at Justice that Bradbury's days were numbered. Isikoff and Hosenball wrote for Newsweek in October: "In a surprising pledge to the Democratic controlled Senate, Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey today promised to re-examine a series of controversial Justice Department legal opinions on sensitive national-security matters and 'change them' if he concludes they are unsound. . . .

"Mukasey's comments would also seem to raise some questions about the future of the author of those opinions--Steven Bradbury, the de facto chief of OLC and an ally of Vice President Dick Cheney's hard-line chief of staff David Addington."

But evidently Mukasey has decided he agrees with Bradbury -- or he's bowing to White House pressure -- or both.

Bush's Iraq Legacy

Michael Abramowitz writes in The Washington Post: "The leading Democratic presidential candidates and their allies on Capitol Hill have launched fierce attacks in recent days on a White House plan to forge a new, long-term security agreement with the Iraqi government, complaining that the administration is trying to lock in a lasting U.S. military presence in Iraq before the next president takes office. . . .

"Administration officials . . . said Democrats are reading too much into the plan, which they describe as an effort to give the next commander in chief the tools to deal with the situation in Iraq. . . .

"As described by administration officials, the accord would amount to a standard 'status of forces agreement' with a friendly country. It would cover such issues as the power U.S. forces would have to arrest and detain Iraqis, or the rules covering engagement with the enemy. . . .

"Bush and his advisers express the private conviction that any presidential successor will find it hard to disengage from Iraq, no matter what is said on the campaign trail. One senior official, not authorized to speak publicly, said Clinton or any another would-be president will eventually welcome the agreement that the Bush administration intends to negotiate with the Iraqis."

David Rogers writes in the Politico: "The White House confirmed Wednesday that its new budget next month will not request a full year's funding for the war in Iraq, leaving the next president and Congress to confront major cost questions soon after taking office in 2009.

"The decision reverses the administration's stance of just a year ago, when President Bush's budget made a point of spelling out in advance what he thought the costs would be for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan for 2008. By comparison, the new budget, to be unveiled Feb. 4, requests only incremental 'bridge' funding into 2009 and won't sustain the military through the full length of the fiscal year, which ends Sept. 30, 2009."

Blogger Steve Benen reminds us that Bush used to say: "I believe it is the job of a President to confront problems, not pass them on to future Presidents and future generations."

Iraq and . . . the Recession?

Could all that borrowing and spending for the war in Iraq have anything to do with bringing about a recession?

Think Progress points out that many economists predicted just such a thing.

Those 935 Falsehoods

I wrote in yesterday's column about a new Center for Public Integrity report and database documenting 935 false statements by President Bush, Vice President Cheney and other top administration officials hyping the threat posed by Saddam Hussein's Iraq in the two years after Sept. 11, 2001.

Here's the White House response yesterday from Press Secretary Dana Perino: "It is so flawed in terms of taking anything into context or including -- they only looked at members of the administration, rather than looking at members of Congress or people around the world. Because as you'll remember, we were part of a broad coalition of countries that deposed a dictator based on a collective understanding of the intelligence."

Similarly, Brit Hume weighed in on Fox News: "A study by two self-described nonprofit journalism organizations accuses President Bush and his advisers of 935 false statements about the threat from Iraq in the two years following the 9-11 attacks. But a large number of those were drawn from repeated assertions that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction -- a concept nearly universally accepted by most of the world's intelligence services at the time."

But the intelligence was nowhere near as definitive as the administration made it out to be. And there were quite a few people -- domestically and internationally, in and out of intelligence services -- who doubted that Iraq had WMD or was a threat. It's just that their voices were drowned out by the constant repetition and amplification of uncontestable facts that turned out to have been fiction.

Riding Him to the End

Jim Kuhnhenn writes for the Associated Press: "A liberal advocacy group plans to spend $8.5 million in a drive to make sure President Bush's public approval doesn't improve as his days in the White House come to an end. . . .

"In selling the plan to fundraisers, the group has argued that support for President Reagan was at a low of 42 percent in 1987 but climbed to 63 percent before he left office. 'All of a sudden he became a rallying cry for conservatives and their ideology,' said Brad Woodhouse, president of the group. 'Progressives are still living with that.'"

And I wonder how many of these we'll see on Monday night: "Looking to test Bush support within the GOP, Americans United is distributing 'I am a Bush Republican' buttons to Republican members of Congress before the State of the Union address."

Cartoon Watch

Ann Telnaes on the 935 false statements, Steve Sack on Bush's stimulus plan, and Mike Luckovich on Bush's State of the Union.

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