Bush Comes Up Empty

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, June 13, 2007; 1:28 PM

It used to be that he didn't even have to ask. Republican lawmakers fell in line behind President Bush, pretty much no matter where he was heading.

Not anymore. Bush went to Capitol Hill at lunchtime yesterday to beseech senators from his own party to help him revive the near-dead immigration bill -- his last best chance at a significant legacy other than the war in Iraq.

They gave him a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, listened politely, then sent him home with nothing to show for his efforts.

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "In a rare visit to Capitol Hill, President Bush pressed Republican senators yesterday to resurrect the compromise overhaul of the nation's immigration laws, but many of the senators instead demanded that his administration first show a more determined commitment to border security. . . .

"He and senior administration officials painted the meeting -- coming five days after the collapse on the Senate floor of the tenuous compromise on immigration -- as a rescue session. Bush made an impassioned plea for the legislation, saying 'the status quo is unacceptable.' . . .

"Although senators described the meeting as cordial, even jovial, they also said the president's efforts to rally GOP support did not win any converts. . . .

"Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) marveled at the president's passion and commitment. But, he added: 'We didn't expect anyone to stand up and holler that they had an epiphany.'

"And, apparently, nobody did."

Nicole Gaouette and Maura Reynolds write in the Los Angeles Times: "Republican senators on Tuesday told President Bush that his administration's lack of credibility in the fight against illegal immigration was a major hindrance to passing overhaul legislation, and they urged him to ask for emergency funds to ramp up enforcement."

Carl Hulse and Jeff Zeleny write in the New York Times: "In a trip to Georgia two weeks ago, Mr. Bush angered critics of the bill when he suggested opponents were spreading 'empty political rhetoric trying to frighten our citizens.' But those who attended the lunch said that the questions to the president and the exchanges were cordial and substantive and that the president did not take aim at conservatives who helped torpedo the legislation last week.

"'He made clear that he wasn't there to threaten anybody or do anything that would be hostile to anybody who disagrees with him,' said Senator Jeff Sessions of Alabama, a leading opponent of the bill. 'He was there to appeal to our sense of commitment to do the right thing.'

"But like several others, Mr. Sessions said that he had not been won over by Mr. Bush and that he would oppose any move to bring the legislation back quickly for a vote."

David Espo writes for the Associated Press: "One Republican widely viewed as a potential convert, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, said he was not yet persuaded. 'At the end of the day, I've got to be able to sit down and know myself that we are going to secure our border,' he said. 'Today, I do not feel that way.'"

Stephen Collinson writes for AFP: "Asked whether Bush had made any breakthroughs, Republican Senator Bob Bennett said simply 'No.'"

David Gergen told NBC's David Gregory: "George W. Bush has reached the point where he's neither loved nor feared by people in his own party. And that leaves him in a very weakened state."

Kinder, Gentler, Less Effective

Susan Milligan writes in the Boston Globe: "The president, often accused of dominating the conversation when lawmakers in both parties are summoned to the White House to discuss policy, was gracious and open to hearing senators' concerns, according to those who attended the luncheon yesterday.

"Instead of using threats or demanding the loyalty the president prizes, Bush used charm, allowing them to vent their objections and answering a few questions."

Jay Newton-Small writes for Time: "Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions stood up at Tuesday's lunch for Senate Republicans and baldly told President George W. Bush what was wrong with his immigration proposal: it would give amnesty to 12 million illegal immigrations, it would reduce illegal immigration by only 13%, and it doesn't go far enough to enforce border security. Bush acknowledged that Sessions, like many conservative Republicans, has serious issues with the immigration bill, but he also managed to diffuse the tension over the issue that has split his party for the last two years. 'Even though we disagree on this bill, I look forward to being in Alabama,' Bush joked to Sessions, whose fundraiser the President is due to attend in Alabama on Friday, and the room burst out laughing."

But did Bush bring anything new to the table? Evidently not.

Newton-Small writes: "Bush spent half his time at lunch listening to senators like Sessions complain and the other half making an impassioned plea, telling senators that the immigration problem has become one of national security. He also told the room about Marc Mares, the president of the Coast Guard Academy class of 2007, where Bush delivered commencement remarks on May 23. Even though Mares' grandfather might well have entered the country illegally, his grandson was well on his way to a life of distinguished public service. (It is a story Bush has mentioned in several speeches about immigration since.)"

Changes in the Making?

Dave Montgomery writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "A bipartisan group of senators who produced the bill met later Tuesday to discuss a package of amendments that they hoped would break the deadlock and persuade Reid to reopen debate.

"Several leaders of the group, known as the 'grand bargainers,' expressed optimism that they were closing in on agreement and could get the bill back onto the floor before Congress leaves for its Fourth of July recess."

Stephen Dinan writes in the Washington Times: "One idea that seemed to gain immediate traction among the Republicans was for Mr. Bush to send up a new emergency-spending bill to fund border security.

"'If we're really going to get support for this bill from the American people there's got to be some restoration of trust,' said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican, who sent a letter with fellow Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson proposing the spending bill. 'There's got to be some effort shown on the part of the administration before I think there's going to be a sufficient number of folks deciding to move this bill forward.' . . .

"'The president said I'm willing to find something that will build confidence, and so I think that is something that may come as a new outcome as a result of this conversation,' said Sen. Mel Martinez, Florida Republican.

"The White House, though open to the idea, was noncommittal.

"'There were some ideas that were raised during the meeting, and the president and members of his administration will consider them,' said Scott Stanzel, a White House spokesman."

Of course, any major change that makes the deal more palatable to Republicans risks losing Democratic support.

Poll Watch

Bush's political powerlessness comes into clearer focus when you consider that, according to many polls, the underlying principles of the immigration bill are widely supported by the American public. As unpopular and mistrusted as he is, he can neither twist arms effectively nor pierce the wall of sound from the nativist noise machine.

Janet Hook writes in the Los Angeles Times: "A strong majority of Americans -- including nearly two-thirds of Republicans -- favor allowing illegal immigrants to become citizens if they pay fines, learn English and meet other requirements, a new Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll has found.

"That is a striking show of support for a primary element of an immigration overhaul bill that has stalled in the Senate amid conservative opposition. . . .

"The immigration bill, a top priority for the White House, is languishing at a time when Bush's approval rating has hit a new low: The poll found 34% approved of the job the president is doing, the lowest level registered by the Los Angeles Times poll throughout his time in office."

More from the poll results: "Bush's approval numbers remain little changed from those found in a L.A. Times/Bloomberg poll last April, but they indicate an overall trend of decline. The strength of discontent in the country with the president is very high -- the proportion of those who strongly disapprove of his job as President is -- at 44% -- nearly three times greater than the proportion of those who strongly approve. . . .

"Bush has seen the biggest decline in his overall job rating among the core of his own party -- Republicans and conservatives. His approval has dropped thirteen points among those who identify with the GOP, falling from 83% last September to 70% today, while those who disapprove have correspondingly increased from 13% to nearly a quarter today."

(Iraq is Bush's biggest albatross; the Times poll finds that a "68% majority -- including four out of 10 Republicans -- would like to see troops begin coming home within the next year or sooner.")

Going to the Blogs?

Mike Allen and Carrie Budoff write in the Politico: "Facing the prospect of an embarrassing defeat, the White House has developed a plan to save the immigration bill by trying to ratchet up outside pressure on Congress, prodding reluctant corporate allies to be more vocal and confronting conservative critics through blogs and talk radio.

"The White House has done outreach to liberal religious and Hispanic groups and, at the suggestion of chief political strategist Karl Rove, made more use of the blogosphere on immigration than it has on any issue since President Bush took office, aides said. . . .

"Aides said it was Rove's idea to focus on blogs. After vetting by policy experts, responses have been posted on a wide range of blogs under the names of Kerrie Rushton and Nicholas Thompson, both associate directors in the Office of Strategic Initiatives, which falls under Rove's domain."

Subpoena Time

Dan Eggen and Paul Kane report for The Washington Post: "The House and Senate Judiciary panels issued subpoenas today for former White House counsel Harriet Miers and others, escalating the legal showdown between Democrats in Congress and the Bush administration over the Justice Department's firing of nine U.S. attorneys last year.

"The House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena for testimony and documents from Miers, while the Senate Judiciary panel issued subpoenas demanding the same from Sara M. Taylor, former White House political director. Both panels also issued separate subpoenas for White House documents related to the dismissals.

"'By refusing to cooperate with congressional committees, the White House continues its pattern of confrontation over cooperation,' said Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.), chairman of the Senate panel. 'The White House cannot have it both ways -- it cannot stonewall congressional investigations by refusing to provide documents and witnesses while claiming nothing improper occurred.'"

The subpoenas come a day after newly released Justice Department documents revealed more about Taylor and Miers's involvement in the firings.

Eggen writes in the Washington Post: "Several high-ranking White House officials were closely involved in crafting a public response to the uproar over the firing of a group of U.S. attorneys, according to documents released late yesterday.

"Then-White House counsel Harriet E. Miers and aides to presidential adviser Karl Rove were deeply enmeshed in debates over how to respond to the controversy as early as mid-January, when Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) questioned the spate of prosecutor departures in a Senate floor speech, according to e-mails that the Justice Department turned over to the House and Senate judiciary committees. . . .

"The 46 pages of e-mails show that Miers and others -- including her deputy, William Kelley, and the White House political affairs director at the time, Sara M. Taylor -- were involved in spirited and sometimes angry e-mail exchanges as the secretive firings operation began to unravel in public. Many of the exchanges also included D. Kyle Sampson, who coordinated the firings as Gonzales's chief of staff.

"White House officials appeared to be particularly concerned about the political fallout over the firing of prosecutor Bud Cummins of Little Rock, who was replaced by Tim Griffin, a former Rove aide. On Feb. 16, for example, Taylor sharply criticized the testimony of Deputy Attorney General Paul J. McNulty, who had told the Senate Judiciary Committee that Cummins was removed to make way for Griffin. The subject line of the e-mails read: 'McNulty Strikes Again.'"

Margaret Talev and Marisa Taylor write for McClatchy Newspapers: "'Tim was put in a horrible position; hung out to dry w/ no heads up,' Taylor lashed out in the e-mail, which was sent from a Republican Party account rather than from her White House e-mail address. 'This is not good for his long-term career.'"

Bush and the Law

Jess Bravin writes in the Wall Street Journal: "The Bush administration's effort to create a separate legal system for the war on terrorism may be foundering.

"Consistent resistance from the U.S. legal establishment has led to court rulings against the government in a series of cases over the past three years involving enemy combatants held both on the American mainland and the naval base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. As a result, the approach promoted by President Bush may not outlast his presidency. What to do with some 385 detainees now in Guantanamo may be one of the first questions -- along with how to handle the Iraq war -- that a new president will have to tackle in January 2009.

"Skeptical civilian and military courts, using language both sweeping and technical, have blocked the government's contention that to fight terrorism the president can invoke military powers that supersede traditional legal protections. None of these setbacks has resulted in the immediate release of prisoners, but they raise questions about the long-term viability of the legal regime."

Bravin traces the problem back to "a tactical decision, made soon after 9/11, in which the administration chose not to ask Congress for permission to try alleged terrorists before military tribunals or indefinitely detain Americans arrested at home. Instead, the administration asserted that such powers were inherently assigned to the president by the Constitution. . . .

"Since 9/11, the president has argued that fighting terrorism is like fighting a war: As commander in chief of the armed forces, the president has irreducible authority to direct troops on the battlefield, which the administration argued includes related powers, such as the detention, interrogation and military trial of enemy prisoners. Yet unlike conventional war, the terrorist threat means the battlefield is everywhere -- in the cities and suburbs of the U.S. as much as in Afghanistan. Thus, the administration believed, the president could treat a U.S. citizen arrested in Chicago as if he were an armed guerrilla attacking American forces overseas."

Adam Liptak writes in the New York Times that the administration adopted the position "that supporters of Al Qaeda represented a novel sort of threat and required a new approach. They are neither soldiers nor civilians, the administration said, and the president should be entitled to have the military detain them indefinitely whether they are captured abroad or in the United States."

But there was another way.

"Eric M. Freedman, a law professor at Hofstra who represents men held at Guantanamo, said it was nonsensical and counterproductive to go to war against a group of terrorists. He offered an analogy.

"'The Colombian drug cartel has airplanes and bombs and boats, and it shoots down American airplanes,' Professor Freedman said. 'They're criminals. You can't go to war against the Colombian drug cartel. If you could, then when they shot down an American military airplane, they wouldn't be guilty of anything. They'd have combat immunity.'

"Supporters of the administration say that analogies like that are not only naïve but also prove the need for a third category. On one hand, they say, terrorists cannot be considered civilians because they could not then be singled out for military attack or assassination or held for intelligence gathering. On the other, they are not entitled to the protections granted to soldiers because they do not fight on behalf of nations or follow the laws of war.

"Critics of the administration say that reasoning is convenient, as it gives the government essentially complete discretion to seize and hold anyone it wants without recourse to the courts."

Iraq Watch

The White House says the national government in Iraq is making progress. But in fact, there's almost no national government to speak of.

Damien Cave writes in the New York Times: "Iraq's political leaders have failed to reach agreements on nearly every law that the Americans have demanded as benchmarks, despite heavy pressure from Congress, the White House and top military commanders. With only three months until progress reports are due in Washington, the deadlock has reached a point where many Iraqi and American officials now question whether any substantive laws will pass before the end of the year. . . .

"For the handful of party leaders with the power to make deals, the promise of compromise now carries less allure than the possibility for domination. Long-suppressed Shiites and Kurds now see total victory within their grasp. Previous American benchmarks like elections have failed to bring peace and, after four years of unfulfilled promises, bloodshed and sprawling chaos, once wary glances have become cold, unblinking stares.

"The same forces of entropy and obstinacy have also severed links between the party leaders and their constituencies. In Shiite areas of southern Iraq, Sunni areas of the west and for Kurds in the north, Iraq's central government has become increasingly irrelevant as competing groups within each faction maneuver at the local level for control of public money and jobs. In many cases, especially through mosques, Iran and other foreign powers often provide more institutional support than Baghdad. . . .

"In many provinces, officials have little respect for laws passed in the capital. In the southern city of Basra, the various Shiite parties have already divvied up the spoils of government: the Fadhila Party controls much of the oil industry and the border police are tied to the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the party of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim."

Meanwhile, old White House friend Ahmad Chalabi has apparently sabotaged the American-backed plan for reintegrating former Baathists into government.

Walter Pincus and Ann Scott Tyson report in The Washington Post on congressional testimony from Lt. Gen. Martin Dempsey, who until recently led the U.S. military's training effort in Iraq.

"Describing the U.S. effort in Iraq as a labor of Sisyphus, he said the metaphoric stone is 'probably rolling back a bit right now in Baghdad. But I don't think it's going to roll over us.'

"Dempsey depicted the level of violence tolerated by Iraqis as 'mind-numbing' and acknowledged that a dearth of security has made some Iraqis nostalgic for the rule of Saddam Hussein, who was ousted by the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. 'You'll hear people say, "You know, we were a lot more secure and safe during the Saddam regime," ' he told the oversight panel of the House Armed Services Committee."

And that was before this morning's blasts at the Golden Mosque.

Scooter Libby Watch

Ken Herman writes for Cox News Service: "Conservatives urging President Bush to pardon former White House aide Lewis 'Scooter' Libby are counting on a chief executive who would have to ignore Justice Department rules as well as his own pardon history and philosophy in order to give Libby a break. . . .

"Law professor Daniel Kobil of Capital University in Columbus, Ohio, who has studied presidential clemency, said Bush's history 'tells us he is not very merciful at all and doesn't seem to want to use this power to benefit those for whom it's designed.' . . .

"Said Kobil of Bush and clemency: 'He is almost terrified to use it. He uses it in only the most minor sort of cases where somebody can't possibly quarrel with the use of the power.'"

The Associated Press reports: "I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby wants what Martha Stewart got. The former White House aide, who faces 2 1/2 years in prison for perjury and obstruction, cited the domestic celebrity in court documents Wednesday as part of his bid to put his sentence on hold."

The Gillespie Appointment

Tyler Whitley of the Richmond Times-Dispatch had the scoop yesterday: "Edward W. Gillespie will step down as Republican Party of Virginia chairman today to become counselor to President Bush in the White House.

"He will replace Dan Bartlett, who resigned recently to return to his native Texas. Several GOP sources, requesting anonymity, confirmed the move.

"Sources said Gillespie, a longtime power broker on Capitol Hill, was reluctant to leave as state party chairman after a tenure of only six months, but he answered the president's pleadings."

A Cheney Dynasty?

The Associated Press reports that Lynne Cheney is being discussed as a possible replacement for Sen. Craig Thomas of Wyoming, who died June 4. "Cheney's spokeswoman would neither confirm nor deny the speculation."

Easy Target

John Maynard writes in The Washington Post: "Talk about your easy target.

"With President Bush's approval ratings at historically low levels, Comedy Central goes for some broad-based Bush-bashing with its new animated series 'Lil' Bush.'"

Matthew Gilbert writes in the Boston Globe: "One of the easiest targets in comedy is, of course, George W. Bush's manner. Jokes about the President's sloppy grammar, his malapropisms, his smug comebacks, and his cowboy attitude now run a penny a dozen. They are to humor writers what Lindsay Lohan is to the paparazzi: run-of-the-mill fare. Years after T-shirt companies and late-night hosts built an industry around Bush's unpresidential demeanor, the material evokes little more than a yeah-so-what-else-is-new shrug.

"So 'Lil' Bush: Resident of the United States' arrives on Comedy Central tonight at 10:30 about seven years too late. The mildly amusing animated series would have packed more of a punch back when Americans were still a little shocked about Bush's seeming arrested development, but these days it comes off as merely facile."

Mike Hale writes in the New York Times: "Too lil', too late."

Watch Watch

Maggie Rodriguez reports for CBS News on how Bush's watch vanished as he was being greeted by enthusiastic Albanians. But White House spokesman Tony Snow insisted at yesterday's briefing that Bush's watch was not stolen: " No, it was not. . . . [T]he President put it in his pocket, and it returned safely home."

Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts write in The Washington Post: "It's not unusual for the president to remove his wedding ring and watch before working a crowd, confirms our colleague Peter Baker."

Cartoon Watch

Tony Auth and John Sherffius on the rule of law; Mike Luckovich on border security; Pat Oliphant on immigration; Tom Toles on Bush and Gonzales; and Walt Handelsman on the Sopranos approach to White House strategy.

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