An Unwelcome Compromise

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, May 24, 2005; 1:57 PM

Yesterday's last-minute bipartisan compromise averting a historic clash on judicial nominations was just that: A compromise.

But this White House isn't keen on compromises. It hasn't had to compromise much so far. And it doesn't want to compromise now.

Compromise means the Senate is not following the White House script. And where that leads is anyone's guess.

Dan Balz writes in a Washington Post news analysis: "The deal brings mixed results for President Bush. It means that at least three of the nominees who have been blocked for years will make it to the appellate courts, while at least two will not. Beyond that, without a total ban on judicial filibusters, as the nuclear option would have guaranteed, the president will not have such a free hand in selecting a Supreme Court nominee. He also will be under pressure from the moderates to work more cooperatively with the Senate on judicial nominations or face rebellion from at least some of them."

Janet Hook and Ronald Brownstein write in the Los Angeles Times that the agreement "is an unusual challenge to Bush and GOP leaders who until now have commanded remarkable party discipline on a wide range of issues. It throws a rare obstacle in the Republicans' steady march toward the overarching goal of the Bush presidency: to parlay the party's slim majority in the country into major changes in policy and in government institutions for years to come."

Peter S. Canellos writes in the Boston Globe: "Emerging from their weeks of negotiations like a long-sequestered jury, Senate moderates delivered a stunning verdict to the White House and Congress: Politicians have spent too much time rallying their bases of support and not enough time coming together in the national interest."

Richard W. Stevenson writes in the New York Times: "President Bush won enough from the bipartisan compromise on judicial nominees on Monday night to claim a limited victory, but he now faces a series of additional tests of his political authority, with the stakes extending to the fate of his second-term agenda. . . .

"Beyond the judicial nominations, administration officials and their outside advisers recognize that the convergence of so many high-stakes issues in such a short period will shape public perceptions of Mr. Bush's power at a time when his approval ratings are already lackluster and his signature domestic initiative, remaking Social Security, is in trouble. . . .

"But when faced with tight legislative situations in the past, Mr. Bush has shown an ability to win narrowly, or to win ugly, or occasionally, as when faced in his first term with certain defeat over his opposition to creating a new homeland security department, to capitulate and brazenly claim an opponent's idea as his own.

"So no one is counting him out now, in any of the specific battles he faces, or in the overall situation."

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times that "two old bulls of the Senate - Robert C. Byrd and John W. Warner . . . parsed the language of Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Paper No. 66 in an effort to divine what the founding fathers intended when they gave the Senate the power to advise and consent on nominees. After trading telephone calls over the weekend, they drafted three crucial paragraphs.

"The agreement contends that the word 'advice' in the paper 'speaks to consultation between the Senate and the president with regard to the use of the president's power to make nominations.' It goes on to state, 'Such a return to the early practices of our government may well serve to reduce the rancor that unfortunately accompanies the advice and consent process in the Senate.' " Reaction to the agreement suggests that opponents of the president are a great deal happier about all this than his loyalists.

Here's Democratic Senate leader Harry Reid: "We have sent President George Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and the radical arm of the Republican base an undeniable message: Abuse of power will not be tolerated, will not be tolerated by Democrats or Republicans. And your attempt -- I say to the vice president and to the president -- to trample the Constitution and grab absolute control is over."

Here's Majority Leader Bill Frist: "Our Constitution . . . simply requires up or down votes on judicial nominees. So in that regard, the agreement announced tonight falls short of that principle. It falls short. It has some good news and it has some disappointing news. And it will require careful monitoring."

Here's White House spokesman Scott McClellan: "Many of these nominees have waited for quite some time to have an up or down vote and now they are going to get one. That's progress. We will continue working to push for an up or down vote on all our nominees."

Howard Kurtz has reactions from across the blogosphere, including his own, in his washingtonpost.com column.

Bush Speaks

This morning in Rochester, Bush himself weighed in on the compromise -- but didn't acknowledge half of it.

He said the decision to vote on three of his nominees was "progress," but otherwise reiterated that all his nominees deserve an "up or down vote."

Bush and Karzai

Of course, some people are sticking to the White House script.

Yesterday in the East Room, President Bush's flowery language could not obscure the fact that he was ultimately giving Afghan President Hamid Karzai the back of his hand. For which Karzai thanked him profusely.

Michael A. Fletcher writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush rebuffed Afghan President Hamid Karzai's effort to gain greater control over U.S. military operations in his country yesterday, as the two leaders endorsed an agreement allowing the United States to continue its policy of simply informing Afghan officials before launching raids in Afghanistan. . . .

"Bush also turned down Karzai's request for Afghanistan to take custody of its citizens being detained by the United States as suspected terrorists, saying that Afghanistan lacks facilities where the suspects 'can be housed and fed and guarded.' . . .

"As he set out for the United States last week, Karzai declared that the report on prisoner abuse 'shocked me totally' and he vowed to press Bush to take 'very, very strong action' against those responsible. In Bush's presence, however, Karzai moderated his language. First installed as president by a U.N. process orchestrated by the United States, Karzai has since won an election but still depends on U.S. support to hold on to power. The target of assassination attempts, he even relies on American bodyguards."

In fact, as Ron Hutcheson writes for Knight Ridder Newspapers, Karzai actually "defended America to the Muslim world Monday, saying reports of prisoner abuse in U.S. detention facilities don't represent the real America."

Here's the text of the Bush-Karzai press conference.

A 'Yes Man'?

McClellan yesterday morning strongly objected to a reporter's question about the perception in some quarters that Karzai is Bush's puppet.

But you could make a dance mix from all the agreeing Karzai did yesterday. From the transcript, in the course of 25 minutes:

"PRESIDENT KARZAI: Thank you, sir. Thank you very much. . . .

"PRESIDENT KARZAI: Exactly. . . .

"PRESIDENT KARZAI: Of course. . . .

"PRESIDENT KARZAI: Yes, we all know that, yes. (Laughter.). . . .

"PRESIDENT KARZAI: Yes, yes. . . .

"PRESIDENT KARZAI: Exactly. . . .

"PRESIDENT KARZAI: Yes, yes. . . .

"PRESIDENT KARZAI: All right, okay, thanks very much. Bye-bye."

Revolt of the Props

John McCaslin writes in the Washington Times that at yesterday's Bush-Karzai appreance: "So few reporters were on hand . . . that the White House hurried to have White House interns fill the empty seats.

"What gives?

"A member of the press corps we spoke to yesterday equated reporters at such staged White House functions with 'props.' He explained that because the president only takes four questions at each press availability -- two from U.S. wire service reporters and two from foreign scribes -- many in the press corps don't bother to show up."

Fighting the Stem Cell Rebellion

The White House today rolls out a particularly dramatic script in response to an unauthorized storyline brewing in the House.

Nina J. Easton writes in the Boston Globe: "In its first vote on stem cell research since President Bush imposed restrictions on federal funding nearly four years ago, the US House of Representatives today is expected to defy a presidential veto threat and pass legislation permitting taxpayer dollars to underwrite research using unneeded embryos from fertility clinics."

What's a president to do?

"The White House and its allies are raising the stakes today with a Rose Garden appearance of 'snowflake' children, those born to mothers using embryos that had been created for other couples' fertility treatments," Easton writes.

"'When you see the faces of our children, it drives the passion,' said Doni Brinkman, a 32-year-old Phoenix woman who trolled the halls of Congress yesterday with her 4-year-old son, Tanner, who wore a T-shirt proclaiming, 'This embryo was not discarded.' "Brinkman's son is one of 81 children born after their parents adopted frozen fertility clinic embryos through the Snowflakes Embryo Adoption Program, a Christian agency heavily promoted by James Dobson, founder of the conservative Focus on the Family. . . .

"'One of our tasks is to put a human face on this,' said a senior administration official. 'The other side has compelling narratives. We can't answer that with theoretical arguments.' "

A Scripted Conversation

Before his snowflake speech, Bush zips up to Rochester for another one of his scripted "conversations" on Social Security with hand-picked panelists and invitation-only audiences.

WROC-TV reports: "Public access to the President's 'Conversation on Strengthening Social Security' at Greece Athena High School will only include pre-approved students and staff of the High School; guests of various Republican elected legislators in the area, and hand-picked guests of the President."

Jeffrey Blackwell and Victoria E. Freile write in the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle: "Tickets allowing lucky audience members inside to hear the president at the school were colored red, blue or gold.

"James Bock, 12, of Livonia, Livingston County, and five members of his family learned they had 'golden' tickets, which mean they'll sit on stage with the president. . . .

" 'I think Social Security should be changed,' said James, who said he's thought hard about the subject, even though he hasn't held a job yet. 'We should have some of the money to put in a personal account and they should keep part of it for us.' " I wrote in my Friday column about the new twist in Bush's Social Security events: Exploiting the misconceptions of young people who believe, in spite of the facts, that Social Security won't be there at all when they retire.

And Devlin Barrett writes for the Associated Press: "When President Bush makes his pitch for personal Social Security accounts at a town-hall meeting Tuesday in suburban Rochester, he may finally win over some key undecided voters: the three Republican congressmen representing the area."

First Lady Heads Home

Jim VandeHei writes in The Washington Post: "First lady Laura Bush on Monday praised Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's controversial plan for elections this year, which some opposition groups say would prevent them from participating. . . .

"Opposition groups, led by the Muslim Brotherhood, say the election plan blocks a serious challenge to Mubarak, who has ruled Egypt for 23 years. 'I think it's a very wise and bold step,' Bush said of the planned election, when asked about complaints from opposition groups."

Reuters reports this morning: "Opponents of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak on Tuesday rejected U.S. first lady Laura Bush's interpretation of Egyptian politics, saying they could not even see the progress she was praising."

Here are the transcripts of the first lady's interviews yesterday morning with NBC's Today Show, CBS's Early Show, and ABC's Good Morning America .

Nedra Pickler reports for the Associated Press this morning: "Laura Bush encouraged leading Egyptian women to continue speaking out for equality and peace Tuesday as she wrapped up a Mideast tour that raised her own voice.

" 'And I know from visiting women around the world, from visiting with Palestinian women this week and Israeli women this week that women want to be involved in civil society,' she told the women who have influential positions in Egyptian government, academia and culture. 'Women want to be able to contribute to their countries, just like men do, and that women want peace.' "

New Meme: Laura the Truth Teller?

Here's a USA Today editorial: "After staying in the White House bubble for much of her husband's first term, Laura Bush is emerging in his second as a refreshing truth-teller cutting through political spin. In fact, on her current trip to the Middle East, the first lady is showing a transformation so substantive that it could have an impact on her husband's legacy."

And here's a commentary from CBS News anchor Bob Schieffer: "The president has surrounded himself with a lot of smart public-relations advisers who give him all kinds of advice about dealing with the press. But Mrs. Bush has developed a strategy of her own: When reporters ask her questions, she just answers them, truthfully, as far as I can tell.

"Memo to the White House staff: This is a different approach, to be sure. But you may want to check it out. It sure seems to work for her."

Memo Watch

At yesterday's briefing, blogger Eric Brewer of BTC News posed his second question to McClellan, this one about something that appears to still be off the regular press corps' radar:

"Scott, last week you said that claims in the leaked Downing Street memo that intelligence was being fixed to support the Iraq War as early as July 2002 are flat-out wrong. According to the memo which was dated July 23, 2002, and whose authenticity has not been disputed by the British Government, both Foreign Minister Jack Straw and British Intelligence Chief Sir Richard Dearlove said that the President had already made up his mind to invade Iraq. Dearlove added that intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy. Do you think these two very senior officials of our closest ally were flat-out wrong? And if so, how could they have been so misinformed after their conversations with George Tenet and Condoleezza Rice?"

See my May 17 column for the background.

McClellan replied: "Let me correct you on the -- let me correct you on the characterization of the quote you attributed to me. I'm referring to some of the allegations that were made referring to a report. In terms of the intelligence, the -- if anyone wants to know how the intelligence was used by the administration, all they have to do is go back and look at all the public comments over the course of the lead-up to the war in Iraq, and that's all very public information. Everybody who was there could see how we used that intelligence.

"And in terms of the intelligence, it was wrong, and we are taking steps to correct that and make sure that in the future we have the best possible intelligence, because it's critical in this post-September 11th age, that the executive branch has the best intelligence possible."

Unsurprisingly, McClellan's response did not address the core question: How could our allies have come to such a conclusion?

Instead, the way I read it, he vaguely reasserted that whatever unspecified nefarious conclusions one might in any way reach from the memo were flatly wrong.

Maybe someone should ask again.

See my April 5 column to learn more about blogger Brewer and his first question to McClellan.

EPA Watch

John Heilprin writes for the Associated Press: "President Bush, in a rare visit to the Environmental Protection Agency, pledged Monday that science would be at the heart of the nation's air, water and land policies."

Here's the text of his remarks.

Ann McFeatters of Scripps Howard noted archly in her pool report that the entire trip, including the motorcade there and back, took Bush a total of 28 minutes.

Business Watch

Jonathan Weisman and Jeffrey H. Birnbaum write in The Washington Post: "From Wall Street to Main Street, the small-government, pro-business mainstay of the Republican Party appears to be growing disaffected with a party it sees as focused on social issues at its expense."

Poll Watch

Bush's approval rating has dropped 4 points in three weeks, to 46 percent according to the latest Gallup poll.

Susan Page writes in USA Today: "President Bush's approval ratings for handling the economy, Iraq and Social Security have fallen to the lowest levels of his White House tenure, according to a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll taken Friday through Sunday."

On CNN's Inside Politics show, William Schneider played the poll results against videotape of Bush statements:

"SCHNEIDER: President Bush's numbers continue to drop. The president's current job approval rating, 46 percent. Half the public disapproves of the way President Bush is handling his job. That's the president's worst rating in over a year. What's the problem?

"BUSH: We're going to permanently solve the Social Security issue so you can grow up with peace of mind.

"SCHNEIDER: Not working. Fifty-nine percent now disapprove of the president's handling of Social Security. Eleven points higher than in early February, when the President started his Social Security campaign.

"And on the economy?

"BUSH: The economy is getting better. Today we got some good news. We added 262,000 new jobs last month.

"SCHNEIDER: Not much celebration. Fifty-eight percent disapprove of the way the President is handling the economy, the worst all year.

"How about Iraq?

"BUSH: And I'm confident we're making great progress in Iraq.

"SCHNEIDER: The public is not. Fifty-six percent disapprove of the way Bush is handling the situation in Iraq.

"Does President Bush get a positive rating on anything?

"BUSH: America is answering new dangers with firm resolve.

"SCHNEIDER: Yes. The President continues to get high marks for his handling of terrorism. But terrorism may have faded in importance.

"A whopping 57 percent of Americans say they disagree with George W. Bush on the issues that matter most to them. That number has never been higher than 51 percent."

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