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Bush the Fiscal Conservative?

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, October 3, 2007; 12:52 PM

The three previous times President Bush vetoed a bill, he did so in public.

In July 2006 and this past June, he surrounded himself with supportive anti-abortion activists who welcomed his veto of stem-cell legislation. In May, when he vetoed legislation that would have established a timeline for troop withdrawal from Iraq, he did so in a televised address that rallied his fellow Republicans.

But this morning's veto of a bipartisan bill that would have dramatically expanded children's health insurance came behind closed doors, with no fanfare or visuals.

Who, after all, would have cheered him this time?

Jennifer Loven writes for the Associated Press that the veto was "one that some Republicans feared could carry steep risks for their party in next year's elections."

A Washington Post/ABC News poll taken last week found that 72 percent of Americans supported the legislation.

Steven Thomma and Tony Pugh write for McClatchy Newspapers: "President Bush is putting his fellow Republicans on a collision course with the American people, forcing them to choose between guns and butter. . . .

"Bush's political motive is clear: He wants to restore his party's reputation as fiscally conservative after six years of letting domestic spending grow faster than it did under Democrat Bill Clinton.

"Thus, a president who didn't veto a single spending bill in his first six years in office now vows to veto not only more spending for children's health insurance but nine other spending bills as well."

Jay Newton-Small writes for Time: "Bush's fighting words aren't just about the current battle over spending -- they are as much about his efforts to shape his legacy as a committed fiscal conservative, all prior evidence to the contrary. . . .

"With Democrats eager to tar the White House as insensitive to children, many observers think the President couldn't have picked a worse fight with which to prove his credentials. But regardless of the immediate political cost over a possible veto of SCHIP, these are fights the President welcomes in his last 16 months in office. After the largest expansion of government since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society four decades ago, he is bending over backward to show committed budget hawks that he is really one of them. Earlier this week the White House went so far as to say that the President was making a stand on SCHIP because it was a 'philosophic issue.'

"For many conservatives, the near-deathbed conversion is all too unconvincing. 'We probably lost the 2006 elections because of his record on spending,' said Paul Weyrich, founder of the conservative Free Congress Foundation. . . .

Ironically, Newton-Small writes, "even dedicated fiscal conservatives think Bush's threatened veto of the bipartisan plan to increase SCHIP is misguided. 'I don't think I would do it if I were President,' Weyrich said. 'It's not worthwhile in terms of political gain.'"

Incidentally, when it comes to looking back at Bush's failure to address the growth of entitlements, Newton-Small writes: "A former White House official blames the loss on Social Security on congressional Republicans. 'Among our least courageous friends on this were our ostensible allies on the Hill who continually said: "Please don't take this on, please don't take this on," including the most conservative members of Congress,' the official said. 'I have to say that one of the things that shocked me was the lack of courage on entitlement reform.'"

'Stop the Madness'

Sometimes the best defense is a good offense.

Here's White House press secretary Dana Perino on Bush's expected veto yesterday: "In a time when [Democrats] think that they want to increase funding for children's health care, they're actually wanting to pay for it with a cigarette tax, which includes -- people who smoke are usually -- the majority are in the low-income bracket. And so they're raising taxes on something to pay for a middle-class entitlement. It's just completely irresponsible. Stop the madness on Capitol Hill."

Why All the Secrecy?

What's been behind the Bush administration's unprecedented secrecy in its pursuit of terrorists?

Has the goal been to keep critical national security information away from those who would do the country harm? Or to hide conduct that is basically indefensible?

Senators yesterday heard directly from a former senior Justice Department official about how, in the case of the administration's warrantless wiretapping program, the White House obsession with secrecy had nothing at all to do with keeping al Qaeda in the dark -- and everything to do with not letting anyone argue or get in the way.

Dan Eggen writes in The Washington Post: "No more than four Justice Department officials had access to details of the Bush administration's warrantless surveillance program when the department deemed portions of it illegal, following a pattern of poor consultation that helped create a 'legal mess,' a former Justice official told Congress yesterday.

"Jack L. Goldsmith, former head of the Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel, told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the White House so tightly restricted access to the National Security Agency's program that even the attorney general and the NSA's general counsel were partly in the dark.

"When the Justice Department began a formal review of the program's legal underpinnings in late 2003, the White House initially resisted allowing then-Deputy Attorney General James B. Comey to be briefed on it, Goldsmith said.

"Goldsmith's testimony provided further details about the fierce legal debate and intense secrecy surrounding the NSA surveillance program within the Bush administration in early 2004. The fight culminated in a threat by Goldsmith, Comey and others to resign en masse if the program were allowed to continue without changes."

This kind of unprecedented "compartmentalization" didn't just happen by accident -- it was the signature tactic of Vice President Cheney and his top legal enforcer, David S. Addington. (See my September 5 column, What Addington Wrought.)

Here's what Goldsmith wrote about Addington in an excerpt from his recent book published on Slate: "The vice president's counsel, who was the chief legal architect of the Terrorist Surveillance Program, was singing the White House tune on FISA. He and the vice president had abhorred FISA's intrusion on presidential power ever since its enactment in 1978. After 9/11 they and other top officials in the administration dealt with FISA the way they dealt with other laws they didn't like: They blew through them in secret based on flimsy legal opinions that they guarded closely so no one could question the legal basis for the operations. My first experience of this strict control, in fact, had come in a 2003 meeting when Addington angrily denied the NSA inspector general's request to see a copy of OLC's legal analysis in support of the Terrorist Surveillance Program. Before I arrived in OLC, not even NSA lawyers were allowed to see the Justice Department's legal analysis of what NSA was doing."

In a related story, Ellen Nakashima writes in The Washington Post: "Key Democratic lawmakers are pressing telephone companies to disclose how they shared Americans' calling and Internet data with the government, part of an inquiry into domestic surveillance efforts such as the National Security Agency's warrantless wiretapping program.

"The House Energy and Commerce Committee, which has jurisdiction over the telecom industry, yesterday sent letters to three major carriers, AT&T, Qwest and Verizon, posing questions aimed at understanding what consumer information is being shared with the government. . . .

"The moves come as the Bush administration is pushing Congress to grant telecoms immunity in lawsuits charging them with invading Americans' privacy by aiding the government's post-Sept. 11 counterterrorism program."

Georgetown University law professor Marty Lederman blogs: "Think about that for a second. Numerous telecommunications executives and technicians were informed about this top-secret program, and (presumably) were given some account of why their participation would be legal notwithstanding FISA. But the Administration continues to refuse to inform Congress about that legal justification (even though it is now asking Congress to immunize the telecoms for having relied on the legal advice that Congress itself cannot see!); and moreover, the White House would not allow the Deputy Attorney General or the General Counsel of the NSA itself to be let in on the secret! . . .

"Obviously, the reason these officials were not 'read into' the program until Goldsmith and Ashcroft insisted upon it was not fear that they would leak vital information to Al Qaeda, but instead that the legal justification was so transparently flawed that it could not withstand any independent review at all -- a judgment that turned out to be true, of course: As soon as anyone outside the Cheney/Gonzales/Yoo circle saw the legal analysis, they realized it was so extreme and untenable that they would have to resign if the President continued to act in reliance upon it. Goldsmith testified today that the NSA program was 'the biggest legal mess I encountered [at OLC].' In light of the August 2002 Torture opinion, that's really saying something!"

And Pamela Hess notes for the Associated Press that while Goldsmith "said that parts of the President Bush's much-criticized eavesdropping program were illegal . . . . he would not say exactly what law or constitutional principle the surveillance violated. Goldsmith said the White House has forbidden him from saying anything about the legal analysis underpinning the program -- key details long sought by majority Democrats and some Republicans."

Here is the text of Goldsmith's opening statement yesterday: "Secrecy is obviously important in war. But too much secrecy can be counterproductive. In my opinion, the Bush administration was excessively secretive inside the Executive branch when it came to the production and receipt of legal advice. . . .

"FBI Director [Robert] Mueller has noted that Attorney General Ashcroft complained 'that he was barred from obtaining the advice he needed on the program by the strict compartmentalization rules of the WH.' I too faced resistance from the White House in getting the clearance for the lawyers I needed to analyze the program. . . .

"This extreme internal secrecy was exacerbated by the fact that the people inside the small circle of lawyers working on these issues shared remarkably like-minded and sometimes unusual views about the law."

Iraq on the Hill

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "The House, with overwhelming, bipartisan support, voted yesterday to give the Bush administration two months to present to Congress its planning for the withdrawal of combat forces in Iraq.

"The 377 to 46 vote was the first salvo of a new legislative strategy adopted by House Democratic leaders, away from partisan confrontation and toward a more incremental approach to war policy that can bring Republicans to their side...

"Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who has said that any Iraq legislation should ensure troop withdrawals, gave no assurance yesterday that he would give the bill a Senate vote."

David M. Herszenhorn writes in the New York Times: "Three prominent Congressional Democrats on Tuesday sought to step up criticism of the White House over the rising cost of the Iraq war. The chairman of the House Appropriations Committee said that he would block President Bush's request for nearly $200 billion in supplemental financing for war operations, and that the government should levy a war surtax to cover costs.

"But the effort seemed to fizzle as Democratic leaders reacted coolly to the ideas. Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California issued a statement opposing the war tax, and Senate Democrats continued work on a defense appropriations bill that would assure sufficient funds to keep war operations going. Republicans also quickly hit back, accusing Democrats of trying to raise taxes at every opportunity. . . .

"The White House press secretary, Dana Perino, dismissed the idea of a war tax .

"'We've always known that Democrats seem to revert to type, and they are willing to raise taxes on just about anything,' she said."

Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Leslie H. Gelb write in a Washington Post op-ed: "The Bush administration and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki greeted last week's Senate vote on Iraq policy -- based on a plan we proposed in 2006 -- with misrepresentations and untruths. Seventy-five senators, including 26 Republicans, voted to promote a political settlement based on decentralized power-sharing. It was a life raft for an Iraq policy that is adrift.

"Instead, Maliki and the administration -- through our embassy in Baghdad -- distorted the Biden-Brownback amendment beyond recognition, charging that we seek to 'partition or divide Iraq by intimidation, force or other means.'

"We want to set the record straight. If the United States can't put this federalism idea on track, we will have no chance for a political settlement in Iraq and, without that, no chance for leaving Iraq without leaving chaos behind."

Among Biden and Gelb's arguments: "The Bush administration's quixotic alternative has been to promote a strong central government in Baghdad. That central government doesn't function; it is corrupt and widely regarded as irrelevant. It has not produced political reconciliation -- and there is no evidence it will."

'Groundhog Day' at the White House

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush's hour-long meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani on Tuesday yielded familiar White House assurances that Iraq's leaders are making progress on unifying their country. The session did not, however, add any clarity about when that may happen. . . .

"Bush and Talabani did not make comments or take questions from reporters."

Here's Perino trying to make the best of it at yesterday's briefing:

Q: "Well, did Talabani give any indication by -- say when he thought these laws would be passed?"

Perino: "He was hopeful. He said that he thought there was a good political environment right now for them to be able to move forward."

Q: "But how is that any different from anything anybody's been hearing for months?"

Perino: "Well, I think that you have to look at what has happened on the ground. And I think that that leaders meeting, from August 26th, then the parliament came back in September, and they're starting to move forward. I understand the frustration and the impatience. I think that they're moving in the right direction."

Q: "But that one line, the President stressed the importance and Talabani agreed, it's a little 'Groundhog Day', isn't it?"

Perino: "These are issues that are complicated. They're trying to figure out how to, for example on the oil law, how to figure out how to take oil revenue and distribute it to the provinces in a law. In practice, that's already happening, with the provinces receiving those types of funds. This is the type of money that they're getting from the central government. But it's not in law yet, and it needs to be."

Amazingly, Perino insisted that neither president had anything to say about Blackwater, the private security company apparently involved in any number of deadly shooting sprees in Iraq.

About Those Contractors

Maureen Dowd writes in her New York Times opinion column: "President Bush continues to preach that we must defeat the 'dark ideology' of extremists with 'a more hopeful vision.'

"But the compromises W. makes to slog on in Iraq, be it with warlords, dictators or out-of-control contractors, are spreading a dark stain on America's image."

Robert Scheer writes in his syndicated column: "The issue is not simply that of the Blackwater forces' horrid behavior but, more important, why the mayhem they unleashed upon innocent Iraqis was approved and covered up by the Bush administration."

AFP reports: "Two US Army subcontractors accused of torturing prisoners at Baghdad's Abu Ghraib jail go to court Wednesday in a case that highlights the murky legal status of private US companies in Iraq.

"Titan and CACI International were hired by the Army to provide interrogators and interpreters at the notorious prison, the scene of well-documented abuses of detainees following the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

"One former Iraqi prisoner now living in Sweden says that under the companies' watch, he was sodomized, nearly strangled with a belt, tied by his genitals to other detainees, and given repeated electric shocks."

Iran Watch

Scott Peterson writes in the Christian Science Monitor: "The drumbeat may sound like a march to conflict between the United States and Iran. . . .

"But in the wake of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's controversial US visit, are signs pointing toward war or diplomacy?

"Despite hard-line rhetoric on both sides -- and a lengthy story by Seymour Hersh in The New Yorker posted on Sunday that suggests the Bush administration is ready for 'surgical strikes' against Iran -- analysts say diplomacy is the far more likely outcome. . . .

"'There are a lot of people in the Pentagon in very high positions -- not to mention the CIA and State Department -- that actually believe that [war] would be lunacy and a total catastrophe to American national interests,' says . . . Gary Sick, an Iran expert at Columbia University who was the principal White House aide for Iran during the 1979 revolution and hostage crisis."

The 'Liberty City Seven'

Carol J. Williams writes in the Los Angeles Times: "At the opening Tuesday of a federal trial of seven terrorism suspects, jurors were asked to settle a question that has dogged the case since its disclosure 16 months ago:

"Did the FBI foil a 2006 plot to bomb Chicago's Sears Tower, or did it finance a fictitious plot to serve as an election-year victory in the war on terrorism?"

Mukasey Watch

Laurie Kellman writes for the Associated Press: "Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy has told Attorney General-designate Michael Mukasey his confirmation could hinge on demonstrating he'll keep White House influence out of Justice Department decisions.

"A key test, Leahy said in a letter to President Bush's nominee, would be Mukasey's willingness to answer questions the White House won't about a litany of issues, ranging from warrantless eavesdropping to whether federal prosecutors were fired to influence the 2006 elections."

What They're Proudest Of

At the " Attorney General's 55th Annual Awards Ceremony" yesterday, the Justice Department brass (what's left of them) made clear which of the last year's accomplishments they are proudest of. Top honors (and nice financial incentives) went to, among others:

* Sixteen lawyers and other employees who did "exceptional work defending the interests of the United States in habeas corpus litigation brought on behalf of aliens, who have been designated as enemy combatants, captured on foreign soil in the War on Terror. . . . Through their extraordinary efforts, the team members have helped shape the development of the law on habeas corpus and have furthered the vital interests of the United States in protecting against terrorism."

* "From the Department's Office of Legal Counsel, Caroline D. Krass, Senior Counsel, and John A. Eisenberg, Deputy Assistant Attorney General, . . . for their indispensable roles in helping to maintain our national security and promote the effectiveness of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act."

* "M. Faith Burton, Special Counsel for the Office of Legislative Affairs, and Paul P. Colborn, Special Counsel for the Department's Office of Legal Counsel . . . for their continued tireless efforts in responding to ever increasing Congressional oversight requests. . . . They have succeeded in striking the appropriate balance between accommodating the Congress's legitimate need for information while preserving and protecting the prerogatives of the Department and the Executive Branch."

Bush's Lancaster Visit

Bush's visit to Lancaster, Pa. today to talk about the budget comes right on deadline. So more tomorrow.

But Tom Murse, who is live-blogging the visit, wrote in this morning's Lancaster New Era about what regular people would ask Bush if they had the chance.

"The New Era posed the question to more than a dozen folks at Lancaster Central Market and Penn Square this morning in anticipation of Bush's return trip to the county on Wednesday. And while Lancaster is a solidly Republican county that supports its commander in chief, its residents are worried about what's going on in Washington. . . .

"The prospect that Bush might take questions during the event had folks thinking about what they would ask him if given the chance. Most wondered why he doesn't pull the troops out of Iraq.

"'I would ask him, 'Why don't you go to Iraq and walk through that place? If you want to send the troops over there, why don't you go over there like them?'' said Nathaniel Gillespie, 39, of Lancaster.

"Similarly, Leah Margerum, 32, of Lancaster City, would ask: 'How do you live with yourself? Would you send your daughters over there? I'm upset. I'm ready for an election.'

"Rose Rineer, 86, also of Lancaster, said her son fought in Vietnam and her husband was at Pearl Harbor, so she understands the need for war. But she adds quickly, and angrily, that it's now time to get out of Iraq.

"Her question?

"'Will you get our boys out of there?'"

But Bush's audience will likely be better behaved than that. Larry Alexander writes for Lancaster's Intelligencer Journal: "The president will be speaking before a select gathering of The Lancaster Chamber of Commerce & Industry members and, possibly, members of the local GOP. Both groups consist mostly of well-dressed white people -- Bush's target audience as opposed to say, folks at Water Street Rescue Mission. . . .

"Dave Dumeyer, chairman of Lancaster County Republican Committee, said the county should be happy Bush is coming here for the fifth time in his administration to announce a new policy.

"'We should be proud we fare so well in his estimation,' Dumeyer said."

But, Alexander writes: "This is not something a lot of areas in the nation would admit to these days. My guess is Bush comes here so often because it's one of the few places left where he can announce policy and not get egged."

And yet, even Lancaster isn't entirely safe anymore. Susan E. Lindt writes for the Intelligencer Journal: "It was almost the smell of revolution in the air Tuesday night.

"About 400 protesters jammed into every crevice of Penn Square's three available corners to protest today's visit President Bush.

"The square's hub, the austere Soldiers and Sailors Monument, was draped with banner-waving protesters yelling anti-Bush and anti-war cries to responsive protesters across the street. . . .

"It was an impressive showing for Lancaster, where anti-war protests are often smaller, silent candlelight vigils."

Jenna's Survival Skills

Jenna Bush was on CNN with Larry King last night, hawking her new book and talking a bit about her father:

King: "How does he -- how do you handle criticism of him? Your grandfather, George Bush -- George H.W. Bush -- says that when his son is criticized, it was worse than when he was criticized."

Jenna Bush: "Yes, it's hard to see. I mean it's hard to see him criticized. We try not to watch. I think my grandmother would say this, too, and he would say this -- too much television where we know he'll be criticized. And we try not to read things where I know he'll be criticized."

Live Online

I'm Live Online today at 1 p.m. ET, eager to respond to your questions and comments.

Video Bushisms

The latest from Slate.

Cartoon Watch

Jeff Danziger on Bush's attempt at rebranding; Rex Babin on "Schipp Happens".

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