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Bush Veto: Hard to Imagine

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Tuesday, July 18, 2006; 3:12 PM

The last time the ethically and politically charged topic of stem-cell research came to a head in Washington, President Bush surprised everyone with a canny compromise proposal that -- while based on dubious assumptions that have since proven incorrect -- bought him five years of relative peace and quiet on the issue.

This time around, it sure looks like Bush will issue the first veto of his presidency once the Senate sends him legislation to ease the restrictions he has imposed on federal stem-cell research.

A veto would likely intensify the battle over stem cells between the religious right and, well, pretty much everybody else. It would also place Bush squarely on the opposite side of public opinion on the issue. Neither of these would be good news for the White House.

But as hapless as Bush's team is showing itself to be in so many other arenas -- foreign policy and emergency management spring to mind -- they are still pretty darn wily when it comes to domestic politics.

And recall that back in August of 2001, this important issue looked similarly irreconcilable until Bush held his first presidential address , at which he announced with great fanfare a cobbled-together approach just short of a ban. His aides fanned out to muffle the conservatives outcry and spin the press. Bush won the media cycle, and the issue returned to a low simmer.

It's not clear that there is an escape hatch for Bush this time around, but you can bet Karl Rove is cooking something up even as I type.

The Looming Confrontation

Rick Klein writes in the Boston Globe: "The Senate is poised today to approve a long-stalled bill designed to expand embryonic stem cell research, setting up a presidential veto -- and adding to an already full plate of issues on which Republicans are divided on the eve of crucial midterm congressional elections. . . .

"The move will please social conservatives, who contend that experimenting on fertilized human eggs to cure diseases amounts to ending human lives.

"Yet Bush's veto of a measure that appears to enjoy strong public support will be a deep disappointment to GOP moderates, including some who are facing tight reelection campaigns in a year that Democrats have high hopes for taking control of Congress."

Margaret Talev writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "From lawmakers to former first lady Nancy Reagan, Republicans who support expanded embryonic stem-cell research are considering making appeals to President Bush to change his mind about vetoing the legislation. . . .

"Final congressional passage is expected Tuesday, but amassing the necessary two-thirds majority in both the House and Senate to override a Bush veto could be impossible. That's why even Republicans confident of Senate victory are weighing a final lobbying push to Bush."

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "The legislation's supporters argued that it could help transform medical science in the United States, with more than 100 million patients potentially benefiting from research that might develop cures or treatments for such conditions as diabetes, spinal cord injuries and Parkinson's disease. . . .

"Under current law, scientists can use federal money for such research only with lines of stem cells created before August 2001, when Bush laid out his policy. Scientists are pushing to lift that restriction, in part because the stem cell lines available under that policy have proved limited."

Dana Milbank writes in The Washington Post that Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), chairman of the Judiciary Committee, yesterday compared Bush's position to those who opposed Columbus, locked up Galileo, and rejected anesthesia, electricity, vaccines and rail travel. Such attitudes "in retrospect look foolish, look absolutely ridiculous," said Specter.

But there's no sign the White House is backing down.

Carl Hulse writes in the New York Times: "The White House issued a formal statement promising a veto on the ground that the 'bill would compel all American taxpayers to pay for research that relies on the intentional destruction of human embryos for the derivation of stem cells, overturning the president's policy that funds research without promoting such ongoing destruction.' "

Jill Zuckman writes in the Chicago Tribune: "As the Senate launched an emotional debate Monday into the possibility of expanding embryonic stem cell research, the White House issued an unusual defense of its policy to fund only a limited amount of research. . . .

"In a statement called ' Setting the Record Straight ,' the White House insisted Monday that federally funded embryonic stem cell lines are widely available to scientists, contrary to complaints leveled by advocates for more research. . . .

"But advocates for the research, who believe it could lead to cures for everything from spinal cord injuries to Alzheimer's disease, say there are few stem cell lines available for research, and they contend that many have been contaminated by mouse cells and are unusable for human therapies."

Sarah Lueck writes in the Wall Street Journal that "congressional aides said it was doubtful the House, and perhaps the Senate, would have enough votes to override Mr. Bush's expected veto, which would be the first of his presidency.

"With much at stake politically, lobbying before the vote has been intense. Stem-cell research advocates said White House political adviser Karl Rove was calling senators to urge them to vote against the bill, as were antiabortion groups."

Nancy Gibbs, Alice Park, Mike Allen and Massimo Calabresi write in Time magazine with the White House line: "George W. Bush seldom suffered personally from doing what's unpopular politically. In fact, you could argue that he has made a career of it, holding fast to positions that many voters reject, as a sign of strength in these dangerous times. So his willingness to exercise his first-ever veto this week on a bill that would expand federal funding for human embryonic-stem-cell research, which 2 out of 3 voters favor, is not just a way to stroke his political base. 'People like leadership much better than a finger in the wind,' says White House press secretary Tony Snow. As Bush explained to him while in St. Petersburg, Russia, for the G-8 summit last week, 'I took a position. I believe in it. So that's what I'm going to do.' "

End of a Streak?

Michael Abramowitz and Chuck Babington write in The Washington Post: "If all goes as scheduled later this week, he will do something he has avoided for nearly six years: veto a bill. . . .

"To a large degree, the lack of a veto reflects the simple fact that Republicans have controlled Congress almost the entire time Bush has been in office and they have been reluctant to send him legislation that might be vetoed. . . .

"But some fiscal conservatives complained that the absence of presidential vetoes reflects a lack of interest by Bush in challenging Congress to reduce costs in large spending bills that are outside the regular budget process -- such as highway, energy and agriculture bills that were full of expensive projects. As long as Bush was receiving support for his big agenda items such as tax cuts and the Iraq war, he went along with the bills, they said."

Manimal Watch

In his 2006 State of the Union message, Bush came out strongly against "human-animal hybrids." See the "Manimal Watch" of my February 2 column .

But apparently the White House isn't nearly as squeamish on that issue when it comes to defending its position on stem-cell research.

In that " Setting the Record Straight " memo yesterday, the White House took offense at this Time magazine's assertion about the stem cell lines Bush approved: "The 'presidential lines' were of limited value; there were not nearly as many as scientists initially thought would be available -- more like 21 than 62, and they were old, in some cases damaged and most likely contaminated with the mouse feeder cells and calf serum used to grow them.' "

Says the White House: "The Eligible Lines Are Not Contaminated, And Are Very Widely Used By Researchers. The use of mouse cells is standard scientific practice. . . . Drug and biological products are routinely co-cultured with animal cells with no adverse consequences for the millions of people who have benefited from them."

The Open Mic

I wrote about Bush's unintentional broadcasting of his lunchtime chatter in yesterday's column . But here's more.

Jim Rutenberg writes in the New York Times: "Whether the cause was poor staff work by the Russian hosts or something more calculated, the result was more interesting and revealing than the catalog of official statements the leaders had issued during their talks here in this St. Petersburg suburb, at the Konstantinovsky Palace."

Peter Baker writes in The Washington Post: "After days of polite diplo-speak, reading from talking points and sticking to the script, here was the unguarded Bush, the impatient Bush, the small-talking Bush marveling at how long it takes to fly around the world and asking the waiter to make sure his Coke was diet. . . .

"The exchange with Blair, one of his closest allies, offered a peek into their relationship. Bush repeatedly interrupted or changed the subject, Blair at times stammered as he tried to make his points."

Caroline Daniel writes in the Financial Times: "President George W. Bush was doing his best this week to be the new, collaborative man, flattering other Group of Eight leaders as he collected 60th birthday presents and appeared to accept the trade-offs of multilateral diplomacy.

"Yet it was the off-mike exchange with his closest ally, Tony Blair, the British prime minister, at yesterday's G8 summit that confirmed the caricature of Mr Bush: a man who could sum up the solution to the Middle East conflict as: all they 'need to do is get Syria to get Hizbollah to stop doing this shit and it's over'.

"The coarse exchange appeared to underline Mr Bush's preference for colloquial straight-talking Texan over diplomatic ambiguity. Mr Bush remains the gung-ho leader with a black and white view of the world, clearly dividing it into enemies and friends."

Michael Hirsh writes for Newsweek that the most jarring thing about Bush's remarks "was what they revealed about his views of Mideast diplomacy. Or, more to the point, his lack of interest in personally taking part in any of it."

Hirsh asks: "why doesn't Bush himself make something happen?"

What's the U.S. Role?

As if to answer Hirsh's question, Nicholas Burns, U.S. undersecretary of state for political affairs, was on the CBS Evening News last night with Bob Schieffer . And Burns, just off Air Force One, insisted: "We are in the middle of the action, Bob, trying to resolve this very serious crisis along the Lebanon Israel border."

For example: "Secretary Rice has decided and the president has asked her to go to the Middle East. It will be quite soon. She will obviously travel directly to the region and she will engage the leadership of the region in ways that we hope will bring an end to the fighting and bring security to Israel."

In his Boston Globe column, however, Peter S. Canellos sees a lot of politically damaging impotence.

"As crises unfolded in North Korea, Iran, Gaza, and Lebanon last week, President Bush wore the look of a man who had played his last card and hoped that the dealer would move on to someone else. . . .

"More than at any time in the past, the limitations of the Bush doctrines of unilateral action, preemptive war, and promotion of democracy are easy for Americans to understand: The vast commitment of troops and resources to Iraq has left the administration unable to make commitments elsewhere, which removes crucial diplomatic leverage. . . .

"The ways in which Bush's decisions have restricted US options are now visible in ways that they weren't when the foreign debate was confined to Iraq. Thus, the events of the past two weeks should have considerable impact on presidential adviser Karl Rove's efforts to focus this year's midterm elections on the Republican strength on national security, because there may not be any evidence of Republican strength on national security."

'They Are Elsewhere'

And although I've given press secretary Tony Snow a lot of grief in the past for being at least as maddening in his nonanswers as his predecessor, on Air Force One yesterday Snow was as direct as I've ever heard anyone in this White House be.

Here's the gaggle transcript . Asked about the possibility of sending U.S. troops as part of a United Nations peacekeeping force in Southern Lebanon, Snow first danced around the question then uttered what will likely become a memorable phrase:

"Q So what about troops?

"MR. SNOW: We have lots of them. They are elsewhere."

About Syria

Karby Leggett, Mariam Fam and Neil King Jr. write in the Wall Street Journal (subscription required) about Syrian President Bashar Assad, the star of Bush's scatalogical sentence.

They write that prospects of good Syrian-U.S. relations seemed bright "in the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks on the U.S., when Damascus worked closely with Washington, providing intelligence on suspected terrorists, and even backed the U.S.-led attack on the Taliban government in Afghanistan.

"But Syria's economic and diplomatic reforms then languished. . . . Syria then opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq and has been severely criticized by U.S. officials, who say the country hasn't worked hard enough to prevent foreign fighters from infiltrating Iraq via Syria and joining the insurgency there.

"Last year, Syria was forced to end its long-time occupation of Lebanon in the aftermath of the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria, accusing Damascus of possible involvement.

"All of that has pushed Syria in recent years to broaden its relationship with Iran, the militant Palestinian group Hamas and Hezbollah in neighboring Lebanon."

But here's an interesting nugget: "Despite Syria's growing isolation, some Israeli analysts have begun speculating that the U.S. may seek to throw Syria a lifeline. Under one scenario, the U.S. would end Syria's international isolation and possibly offer it some kind of aid package, in return for cutting ties with Iran and ending support for Hezbollah and Hamas."

An Expletive Challenge

Peter Johnson writes in USA Today: "News outlets were divided Monday over whether to air or post an expletive used by President Bush during an unguarded moment at the G8 summit in Russia.

"CNN broadcast and posted unedited video. The New York Times and The Washington Post reported the word in Web stories. On CBS, NBC, ABC, Fox News, MSNBC and USA TODAY, the word was excised in videos and Web stories (though an audio clip with a warning at USA TODAY included it). The Times and the Post said they'd publish the word today; USA TODAY will not."

Brooks Boliek writes for the Hollywood Reporter: "President Bush's use of the s-word during a supposedly private chat with British Prime Minister Tony Blair Monday forces U.S. broadcasters to follow strict new indecency laws while their cable rivals have no such worries."

And Time TV critic James Poniewozik , in his blog, calls attention to the first part of the now-infamous sentence, which of course went like this: "See, the irony is what they need to do is get Syria to get Hezbollah to stop doing this shit, and it's over."

Writes Poniewozik: "Personally, I could care less that a grown man used a swear word when speaking to another grown man. I'm more disturbed that the President used 'irony' to describe what seemed to be an entirely unironic situation. Have we learned nothing from Alanis Morrisette?"

See the BBC 's lengthy discourse on irony.

No Excuses

From Snow's gaggle:

"Q What was the President's reaction when he found out the microphones were on during the conversation with Blair?

"MR. SNOW: He sort of rolled his eyes and laughed. . . .

"I mean, you know -- actually, his reaction first was, what did it say? So we showed him the transcript, then he rolled his eyes and laughed."

And later:

"Q A comment on the President's use of a word that some people might consider to be an expletive?

" MR. SNOW: Not unless you've never used it.

" Q Damn. (Laughter.)"

Live Online

I'll be Live Online tomorrow at 1 p.m. ET. Come visit.

Valerie Plame Watch

Editor and Publisher asked various columnists what they thought of Robert Novak 's July 12 piece.

" 'I wonder whether Mr. Novak has an editor,' said National Society of Newspaper Columnists (NSNC) President Mike Argento."

Debra Saunders writes in her San Francisco Chronicle opinion column: "Former CIA operative Valerie Plame is the new Paula Jones -- if with national security credentials and Washington Beltway savoir-faire. Both women filed iffy lawsuits that seemed more designed to discredit a president than to prevail in a court of law."

Keith Olbermann had former ambassador Joseph Wilson on MSNBC last night. Wilson likened himself to St. Thomas Becket, with Vice President Cheney as King Henry II: "My theory is that Cheney basically annotated the article , which was the equivalent of saying 'Will no one rid me of this troublesome priest?' and [chief of staff Scooter] Libby and perhaps others, and Mr. Rove certainly, went around and leaked Valerie's name, among other things."

Here's some background on Becket, in case that allusion is drawing a blank.

Love Attack on Merkel!

On the Crooks and Liars blog, John Amato has photos and video of -- and links about -- Bush's unsolicited neck massage of German Chancellor Angela Merkel during a G-8 session on Sunday.

The German Magazine Bild calls it "Bush's Love-Attack on Merkel" and, according to a predictably hilarious Babelfish translation , writes something along the lines of: "From the rear it creeps verschmitzt at Kanzlerin Angela Merkel near, surprises it with a lightning Massage.

James Gerstenzang of the Los Angeles Times described the incident as "a lesson in body language."

But over on the Majikthise blog, Lindsay Beyerstein writes much less charitably: "Every woman will recognize the guy who sidles up and starts 'casually' giving you a backrub without even looking at you, because he wants to preserve deniability in case you freak out. Like any practiced groper, Bush stares right past Merkel as she recoils from his touch."

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