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Summer Grilling Season?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, May 3, 2006; 12:27 PM

It could turn out to be the political event of the summer. Or it could just be another empty promise from the sporadically rebellious Republican chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Charlie Savage writes in the Boston Globe today that Arlen Specter, "accusing the White House of a 'very blatant encroachment' on congressional authority, said yesterday he will hold an oversight hearing into President Bush's assertion that he has the power to bypass more than 750 laws enacted over the past five years.

" 'There is some need for some oversight by Congress to assert its authority here,' Arlen Specter, Republican of Pennsylvania, said in an interview. 'What's the point of having a statute if . . . the president can cherry-pick what he likes and what he doesn't like?'

"Specter said he plans to hold the hearing in June. He said he intends to call administration officials to explain and defend the president's claims of authority, as well to invite constitutional scholars to testify on whether Bush has overstepped the boundaries of his power. . . .

"Legal scholars say that, when confronted by a president encroaching on their power, Congress's options are limited. Lawmakers can call for hearings or cut the funds of a targeted program to apply political pressure, or take the more politically charged steps of censure or impeachment.

"Specter's announcement followed a report in the Sunday Globe that Bush has quietly asserted the authority to ignore provisions in 750 bills he has signed -- about 1 in 10. . . .

"Specter said that challenging Bush's contention that he can ignore laws written by Congress should be a matter of institutional pride for lawmakers."

You would think.

It's certainly good to know someone noticed Savage's highly alarming story on Sunday. (Did you miss it? Read it now .) That puts Specter way ahead of, well, pretty much every other major media outlet in the country, which for inexplicable reasons have chosen to ignore it.

But don't get too excited. Whenever Specter threatens to challenge Bush's authority, it needs to be taken with a grain of salt. He has a long record of talking tough -- then knuckling under.

For instance, Specter last month called on Bush to tell Americans why the White House leaked intelligence to bolster the case for the Iraq war in 2003. But then he let the issue drop.

In December, after James Risen and Eric Lichtblau reported in the New York Times on Bush's extensive warrantless domestic spying program, Specter angrily called for hearings. But when they came, he let Attorney General Alberto Gonzales sidestep many of the most important questions.

Specter has refused to issue subpoenas to back up his requests for the Bush administration to turn over classified legal opinions on the spying program.

And just last week , Specter filed an amendment to a spending bill that would block funding for any domestic eavesdropping until the administration provides Congress with much more information -- but then stopped short of actually saying it should be approved.

Other journalists have written about Bush's signing statements before. Here's Elisabeth Bumiller of the New York Times, Ron Hutcheson and James Kuhnhenn of Knight Ridder Newspapers, and Ken Herman of Cox News Services.

But Savage on Sunday for the first time demonstrated just how extensively Bush has used the following M.O: Rather than veto bills he doesn't like, which would actually give Congress a chance to override his judgments, he signs them with a public flourish -- then quietly files signing statements asserting his power to ignore them.

Here, by the way, are all of Bush's many signing statements , as recorded in the Federal Register.

Cheney in Vanity Fair

Has Dick Cheney gone round the bend? That appears to be at least one focus of a new Vanity Fair story about the vice president by Todd Purdum.

Hotline has this excerpt from the story: "He takes a range of medications that he and his doctors decline to detail. The extent of his atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries, which, if it extends beyond the heart to the brain, can cause hard-to-recognize changes in cognition) is unknown. Bypass surgery itself has long been associated with subtle changes in neurological function.'

"At age 65, Cheney is easily 30 or more pounds overweight, seems to have slacked off on what was once a more rigorous diet, and appears to suffer from recurrent bouts of gout. At a roundtable lunch with reporters a couple of years ago, two who were present say, he cut his buffalo steak in bite-size pieces the moment it arrived, then proceeded to salt each side of each piece."

The magazine itself put out a press release yesterday.

"Cheney tells Purdum that he has not changed over the years, but perhaps many of his contemporaries think he has 'because of my associations over the years, or because I came across as a reasonable guy, people have one view of me that was not necessarily an accurate reflection of my philosophy or my view of the world. . . .

"Purdum reports that Cheney travels with a chemical-biological suit at all times. When he gave his friend Robin West and his twin children a ride to the White House a couple of years ago, West commented on the fact that Cheney's motorcade varied its daily path. 'And he said, "Yeah, we take different routes so that 'The Jackal' can't get me," ' West tells Purdum. 'And then there was this big duffel bag in the middle of the backseat, and I said, "What's that? It's not very roomy in here." And [Cheney] said, "No, because it's a chemical-biological suit," and he looked at it and said, "Robin, there's only one. You lose." ' "

Tax Cuts

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush and congressional Republicans agreed yesterday on a $70 billion package of tax-cut extensions that they hope will help halt the deterioration of their political fortunes.

"The package would extend the 2003 cuts to the tax rates on dividends and capital gains, continue tax breaks for small-business investment and the overseas operations of financial service companies, and slow the expansion of the alternative minimum tax, a parallel income tax system that was enacted to target the rich but is increasingly snaring the middle class. . . .

"Bush summoned Republican leaders and tax writers to the Oval Office yesterday to force an agreement on a tax bill that has languished since late last year. The president is scheduled to speak today on the economy and taxes, and he implored lawmakers to deliver an agreement he could tout."

Who benefits from these cuts?

David Cay Johnston wrote in the New York Times last month: "The first data to document the effect of President Bush's tax cuts for investment income show that they have significantly lowered the tax burden on the richest Americans, reducing taxes on incomes of more than $10 million by an average of about $500,000."

Colbert Redux

Jacques Steinberg writes in the New York Times: "Mark Smith, a reporter for The Associated Press who is president of the White House Correspondents' Association, acknowledges that he had not seen much of Stephen Colbert on Comedy Central before he booked him as the main entertainment for the association's annual black-tie dinner on Saturday night. But he says he knew enough about Mr. Colbert -- 'He not only skewers politicians, he skewers those of us in the media' -- to expect that he would cause some good-natured discomfort among the 2,600 guests, many of them politicians and reporters.

"What Mr. Smith did not anticipate, he said, was that Mr. Colbert's nearly 20-minute address would become one of the most hotly debated topics in the politically charged blogosphere. Mr. Colbert delivered his remarks in character as the Bill O'Reillyesque commentator he plays on 'The Colbert Report,' although this time his principal foil, President Bush, was just a few feet away.

" 'There was nothing he said where I would have leapt up to say, "Stop," ' said Mr. Smith, who introduced Mr. Colbert and sat near him on the dais. 'I thought he was very funny,' Mr. Smith added, though there was hardly consensus on that point yesterday."

Chris Lehmann of the New York Observer dumps on everyone and everything related to the dinner: "High-toned D.C. gatherings such as this one are unfailingly unctuous, one of the many coyly winking moments in political life when every partisan, satrap and commentator on hand is asked to lighten up and affirm the ultimate shared agenda, of merely gaming the system to one's own best short-term advantage."

As for Colbert: "One D.C. bureau chief for a major paper was indeed chortling gleefully at nearly every breath Mr. Colbert drew on the dais; others were more restrained, most likely because the act was the opposite of ballsy confrontation. Safely delivered all in the stentorian, arrogant voice of Mr. Colbert's late-night Bill O'Reilly knockoff persona, the material came off as shrill and airless, with little time or space left for jokes to sink in and seduce the listener before the next round of hectoring began."

Columbia Journalism professor Todd Gitlin tells Gil Kaufman of MTV: " 'I think this is a case of a media who have tiptoed away from the embrace of the administration and are now reluctant to take what would seem to them a deeper plunge into the wilderness of criticism,' Gitlin said. 'When Bush makes fun of himself, it's within a very narrow and limited framework. But Colbert's digs went to some of [Bush's] fundamental incapacities.' "

Marty Kaplan writes in Huffingtonpost.com that all the blogosphere's outrage at the media for ignoring Colbert's speech is just tough love.

"The media establishment doesn't seem able to understand that the passion that motivates many people to blog about the MSM, and many more to comment on those posts, is born of an old-fashioned appreciation of the power and role of journalism. When bloggers jump on what they believe to be stenography rather than reporting, when they denounce partisan narratives posing as uncontested wisdom, when they push back against blind-source footsie: they're doing it because they're in awe of what good journalism is capable of doing."

For more on Colbert, read my Monday column, All Kidding Aside , and my Tuesday column, The Colbert Blackout .

Is Bush at War With the Press?

Jack Shafer writes in Slate: "Let's charge Bush with contempt of press and damn his secret ways, but do his offenses committed really constitute a war on the Fourth Estate? Or is the press using its stage to play the drama queen?. . . .

"Rather than crying 'war' over the Bush-press disputes, I subscribe to Jay Rosen 's more modest idea that the Bushies ambition was to 'decertify' the press from its modern role as purveyor of news and portray it as just another special interest."

Bush en Español

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "President Bush declared last week that the national anthem should be sung in English not Spanish, but he evidently never told his own government or campaign organizations.

"The State Department posts four Spanish versions of 'The Star-Spangled Banner' on its Web site. . . .

"The Center for American Progress, a liberal group run by Clinton chief of staff John D. Podesta, posted on its blog a reference to Bush singing the anthem in Spanish. In his book, 'American Dynasty,' Kevin Phillips wrote that Bush 'would drop in at Hispanic festivals and parties, sometimes joining in singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" in Spanish, sometimes partying with a "Viva Bush" mariachi band flown in from Texas.'

"White House spokesmen and former campaign operatives said they could not recall whether that happened, though given the level of Bush's Spanish proficiency, they seemed dubious."

Read the Thinkprogress.org posts here and here .

Abramoff Watch

The Associated Press reports: "The Secret Service's records documenting convicted lobbyist Jack Abramoff's contacts with Bush administration officials may not reveal all such meetings, the White House said Tuesday.

"The Secret Service has agreed to turn over White House visitor logs showing when Abramoff met with administration officials -- and with whom. But presidential spokesman Scott McClellan cautioned reporters from viewing the release as all-inclusive."

That's a very charitable way of summarizing several maddening exchanges between McClellan and reporters yesterday, in which the lameduck spokesman virtually taunted reporters with his refusal to explain his cryptic answers.

TPM Muckracker publishes the text of the morning gaggle . There was more useless back-and-forth in the briefing .

Merkel's Visit

Hugh Williamson writes in the Financial Times: German "Chancellor Angela Merkel will today urge US President George W. Bush not to press too quickly for international sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, a foreign policy adviser close to the German leader said yesterday in Berlin.

"The chancellor, who will be holding her second round of talks with Mr Bush since taking office last year, is worried that 'if a whole series of steps against Iran are proposed, including international sanctions, then this would end the unity in the international community on the issue', the senior official said."

But that's not the entire agenda. But that's not the entire agenda.Darren Ennis reports for Reuters that Bush will push Merkel to clamp down on World Cup prostitution.

Judicial Watch

Charles Babington writes in The Washington Post: "After months of relative quiet, senators raised the prospect yesterday of a return to bitter battles and a possible filibuster over judicial nominations, as the White House urged confirmation of two conservative nominees who have sought approval for years.

"Democratic leaders said they certainly would filibuster one of the nominees, Terrence W. Boyle, and might filibuster the second, Brett Kavanaugh, if Republicans refuse to call him back for a second hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee."

Babington explains that liberal groups vigorously opposed Boyle, "saying his rulings have shown a disregard for minorities and disabled people."

But Kavanaugh is also quite a hot-button for Democrats. As Emma Schwartz wrote for the Legal Times in March, Kavanaugh is "something of the Zelig of young Republican lawyers. A protégé of independent counsel Kenneth Starr, he was a key figure in the Whitewater investigation.

"He also co-wrote the Starr Report on the Monica Lewinsky affair."

Schwartz continued: "In the recount fight after the 2000 election, he served as a foot soldier in the legal army that descended on Florida and gave Bush his presidency. As a lawyer for Bush in the White House counsel's office, he shepherded most of the administration's contentious federal court nominees."

The New York Times editorial board came out against Kavanaugh today: "A young lawyer with paltry courtroom experience, Mr. Kavanaugh does not have the legal background appropriate for such a lofty appointment. What he does have is a résumé that screams political partisanship."

Poll Watch

Scott Keeter writes for the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press: "Even among one of the president's most supportive constituencies, white evangelical Protestants, Mr. Bush has suffered declines. . . .

"A new analysis by the Pew Research Center finds that while the president still has the support of a majority of white evangelical Protestants, significantly fewer of them now approve of his performance in office (55% approve, 38% disapprove) than was true at the start of his second term when 72% approved and only 22% disapproved. . . .

"Moreover, 45% of evangelicals agreed with the statement that 'I am tired of all the problems associated with the Bush administration' -- less than a majority but a sizable number nonetheless."

Scooter Libby Watch

The bloggers continue to lead the way in scrutinizing the legal filings in the Scooter Libby case.

Tom Maguire Web-publishes the most recent filing from the Libby camp.

Jane Hamsher writes: "The most popular word in the filing is 'misrecollected.' (From p. 3, 'whether it is Mr. Libby or the reporters who have misstated or misrecollected the facts.' From p. 26, 'it is Mr. Russert who has misrecollected or misstated the facts.') It's being employed here for the purpose of avoiding an explicit discussion of what they're really talking about, commingling under its broad tent two distinct activities: the act of remembering an event but failing to recall certain details, which would also be known as 'forgetting,' and the act of remembering things that never actually happened, which would be in effect 'fabricating.' They seem to be describing the latter while hoping for the more innocent overtones of the former."

Valerie Plame Watch

Here's Chris Matthews on MSNBC, setting up his interview with two former CIA officials: "Gentlemen, help me with something I care about a lot. That is the connection between the case for war made before the war, and this whole CIA leak investigation."

And here's Keith Olbermann on MSNBC last night: "The irony was already inescapable and infuriating. In the middle of a war that started over nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, the administration of President George W. Bush was willing to destroy the cover of a secret American agent on the trail of actual weapons of mass destruction, in order to deflect criticism over how badly it had fouled up or puffed up its wobbly evidence about phony weapons of mass destruction."

Impeachment Watch

In the Philadelphia Inquirer's op-ed pages today, Dave Lindorff and Barbara Olshansky , coauthors of "The Case for Impeachment: The Legal Argument for Removing President George W. Bush from Office" write that "over the last five years, Bush has become the Willie Sutton of constitutional violators."

Disappointing Some Readers

I got a lot of nice e-mails about my column yesterday , in which I ruefully described my own conduct at the White House Correspondents Association dinner.

But a few readers were livid.

Reader Jim Crozier sent the following message:

"Never I have I been as disappointed with a journalist as I was with your 'performance' at the recent dinner. I had thought you were one of the few honest journalists that this country had left, someone who didn't mind losing some access if it meant telling the truth or asking the tough questions.

"But when push came to shove and you actually had an opportunity to ask a pair of the White House Sleaze District occupants tough questions, you punted because they were 'nice people'. In other words, you acted like virtually every single member of the mainstream media in the entire freaking country. You thought of your career and advancing it with access rather than irritating the powers that be.

"Another piece of my rapidly dwindling faith in every single aspect of my country died today when I read your column and saw how you had acted. You let me down and you let your readers down. You'll notice that I listed these two as separate entities. I won't be reading your column any longer.

"I give you one week to find some way to atone, via an apology or something else, for your gutless performance. After that, while it may not matter to you at all, you'll have lost at least one everyday reader."

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