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Congress Goes Belly Up

By Dan Froomkin
Special to washingtonpost.com
Thursday, December 13, 2007; 11:46 AM

Historians looking back on the Bush presidency may well wonder if Congress actually existed.

Time and time again, President Bush has run circles around what is, at least on paper, a co-equal branch of government. Sometimes he doesn't bother to ask Congress for its approval. Sometimes he demands it -- and gets it.

Amazingly enough, that didn't change when the Democrats won control of the House and Senate. They just make a bit more fuss before rolling over.

Charles Babington writes for the Associated Press: "Congressional Democrats prepared Wednesday for major concessions on Iraq war funding, children's health insurance, tax policies, general spending and energy, because they could not overcome vetoes by President Bush.

"The setbacks are a stinging disappointment for Democrats, who took control of the House and Senate with narrow majorities this year but never found a formula for coaxing compromises from Bush and his GOP supporters. Republicans blame Democratic hubris, but both sides agree on one thing: Voters will have a clear choice in 2008 on how Congress should be run. . . .

"House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., told reporters that Democrats have done all they can. 'We were not elected to do what the president tells us to do,' Hoyer said. But acknowledging political realities, he added: 'If he vetoes and we can't override the veto, then we have to go in some other direction.'

"In every case, Bush's veto powers or senators' filibuster powers have forced Democrats to retreat. . . .

"The bitterest pill for House Democrats is their continued inability to force U.S. troop withdrawals in exchange for continued funding of the Iraq war. Final details were undecided Wednesday, but top Democrats said the administration will get a significant portion of its war spending request, with no strings attached."

Jonathan Weisman writes in The Washington Post: "House Democratic leaders yesterday agreed to meet President Bush's bottom-line spending limit on a sprawling, half-trillion-dollar domestic spending bill, dropping their demands for as much as $22 billion in additional spending but vowing to shift funds from the president's priorities to theirs. . . .

"The agreement signaled that congressional Democrats are ready to give in to many of the White House's demands as they try to finish the session before they break for Christmas -- a political victory for the president, who has refused to compromise on the spending measures. . . .

"White House spokesman Tony Fratto emphasized last night, 'The White House is not part of any deal, full stop.'"

Alexander Bolton writes in The Hill: "The Democrats' capitulation Wednesday on the total domestic spending level is the latest instance of Bush prevailing on a major policy showdown."

Jonathan Weisman and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "Officially, House Democrats blame Senate Republicans, who have used parliamentary tactics to block even uncontroversial measures. But they are increasingly expressing public frustration with Reid and Senate Democrats for not putting up a better fight.

"House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank (D-Mass.) called it a 'hold and fold' strategy: Senate Republicans put a 'hold' on Democratic bills, and Senate Democratic leaders promptly fold their tents. . . .

"House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.) accuses Senate Democratic leaders of developing 'Stockholm syndrome,' showing sympathy to their Republican captors by caving in on legislation to provide middle-class tax cuts paid for with tax increases on the super-rich, tying war funding to troop withdrawal timelines, and mandating renewable energy quotas. If Republicans want to filibuster a bill, Rangel said, Reid should keep the bill on the Senate floor and force the Republicans to talk it to death."

The White House is clearly enjoying the squabbling among Democrats, and is delightedly using it as an excuse for refusing to negotiate the budget.

From yesterday's briefing with White House Press Secretary Dana Perino:

Q: "Well, since there's not much time, is the President willing to get involved in the negotiations himself, I mean, bring the Democratic leaders down here and try to --"

Perino: "Well, I think anyone would understand that the President's position is reasonable, and that he has tasked his Cabinet officer, OMB Director Jim Nussle, to go up and negotiate with the Democrats and the Republicans in order to bring this to closure. But it is very difficult to negotiate when you're dealing with several different positions on the Democratic side. So once they coalesce around one position, it will be easier for us to have -- to sit down and have negotiations. . . ."

Q: "But you can't have a negotiation until you're willing to talk."

Perino: "We are willing to talk. We have an open dialogue. And we have Director Nussle, who is speaking for the President, acting on behalf of the President, working with them. But who do you talk to? Do you decide to talk to Congressman Obey, or Speaker Pelosi, or Congressman Hoyer, or Senator Reid? Once all of them come together on one position, then we can have a negotiation. . . . "

Q: "It would seem that Presidents throughout the ages have taken a leadership role by meeting with leaders of the opposition party and sort of sitting down together and hammering out a deal and then expecting those leaders to go back to their people and say, look, this is what I negotiated with the President. And that is sort of part of presidential leadership. So I'm wondering why, at this crunch time, as you described it, the President isn't willing to do that."

Perino: "Sheryl, who would he meet with? Should he have four different meetings, or should he -- is it --"

Q: "I would say that that would be up to him, but --"

Perino: "No, Sheryl, let me answer the question."

Q: "-- the logical choices would be Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid."

Perino: "Let me answer your question. But we get four different -- you get a different Democrat, different answer almost every hour."

Opinion Watch

Kevin Drum blogs for the Washington Monthly: "Say what you will about the Republican Party's indifference to anything other than obstructing Democratic legislation ( and I have), it seems to be working like a charm."

Salon blogger Glenn Greenwald surveys the morning's headlines and concludes that "all of this behavior by the Democrats is absolutely necessary. They have no choice. Otherwise, Rush Limbaugh and Fox News will attack them for being weak (as though there is some circumstance under which they wouldn't) and that would be terrible. Nothing exudes strength, courage, toughness and resolve like having your behavior continuously described -- accurately -- as 'bowing,' 'capitulating,' 'backing down,' 'caving' and 'surrendering.' Those are the verbs Americans love most when looking for the party to lead them."

Veto No. 7

Christopher Lee writes in The Washington Post: "For the second time in three months, President Bush yesterday vetoed legislation that would have expanded the State Children's Health Insurance program by $35 billion over five years and would have boosted its enrollment to about 10 million children. Bush cited the same reasons that led him to veto a version of the bill on Oct. 3 -- that it raised cigarette taxes and provided coverage for children of middle-class families instead of focusing on the working poor.

"Democrats and some Republicans had argued that the second version addressed Bush's major concern by capping eligibility at 300 percent of the federal poverty line -- slightly more than $60,000 for a family of four. But most expected the president to veto the measure anyway. Backers of the legislation could not override Bush's first veto and it is unclear if they will try to override the second one."

Veto Threat No. ?

John M. Broder writes in the New York Times: "The White House has raised last-minute concerns over regulation of automobile emissions and fuel economy that aides said Tuesday could lead to a presidential veto of the energy bill now before Congress.

"The bill, which passed the House and is pending in the Senate, requires automakers to meet a fleet average of 35 miles per gallon by 2020, but does not specify which government agency should enforce the new rule. . . .

"The White House, echoing a position taken by auto manufacturers and a coalition of industry groups, is asking that the energy legislation be changed to specify the [National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, an arm of the Transportation Department] as the primary enforcer of fuel efficiency standards, with the [Environmental Protection Agency] in only an advisory role. Democratic leaders in Congress have rejected that position as a 'nonstarter' and indicated their intent to move the bill with the current language intact.

The New York Times editorial board writes: "The Senate should ignore an incredibly mischievous last-minute veto threat from the White House and vote resoundingly in favor of an energy bill that could come before it as early as today. . . .

"[F]or the White House to advance industry's cause at the 11th hour of the debate over a breakthrough energy bill is inexcusable."

Poll Watch

The latest Gallup Poll has Bush's job approval rating at 37 percent. Objectively, that's still dismal. But relatively speaking, it's up substantially in the last month or so. As Gallup reports, by comparison "[i]n early November, 31% of Americans approved of Bush as president -- just two points off his term-low rating of 29%."

Why the upward movement? I asked that question in my Live Online yesterday, and readers suggested all sorts of possible reasons, including the relative improvements in Iraq, the Middle East peace conference, the reduced threat of war with Iran, and that he actually looks good compared to the Republican candidates that could succeed him.

But maybe I jumped the gun. Gallup might have it wrong.

The latest New York Times/CBS News poll finds Bush's numbers down two points from September and October.

Adam Nagourney and Megan Thee write in the New York Times: "President Bush's approval rating is at 28 percent, one point above the lowest of his tenure."

They also note: "A vast majority think the country is heading in the wrong direction. More people cite the Iraq war as the most important issue facing the country than cite any other matter, and though 38 percent say the dispatch of extra troops to Iraq this year is working, a majority continue to say that undertaking the war was a mistake."

And the new Washington Post/ABC News poll finds Bush stalled at 33 percent, exactly where he's been for six months.

Torture Tapes Watch

Mark Mazzetti writes in the New York Times: "Gen. Michael V. Hayden, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency, acknowledged on Wednesday that the C.I.A. had failed to keep members of Congress fully informed that the agency had videotaped the interrogations of suspected operatives of Al Qaeda and destroyed the tapes three years later.

"General Hayden's comments struck a different tone from a message he sent to C.I.A. employees last Thursday, when he said that Congressional leaders had been informed about the tapes and of the 'agency's intention to dispose of the material.' . . .

"After a hearing that lasted nearly four hours, Representative Silvestre P. Reyes of Texas, the committee's chairman, called parts of General Hayden's testimony 'stunning' and said lawmakers were just at the beginning of what would probably be a 'long-term investigation.' . . .

"Congressional investigators are particularly interested in advice the C.I.A. received from White House lawyers over a two-year period, from 2003 to 2005. Government officials have said that White House aides advised the C.I.A. to preserve the tapes, but the exact guidance they gave remains murky.

"Some in Congress are curious to know why, if [Jose A. Rodriguez Jr., the head of the agency's clandestine branch] had really ignored White House advice not to destroy the tapes, he was apparently never reprimanded."

Walter Pincus writes in The Washington Post: "One question still to be explored is whether records of the interrogations exist."

In a letter to the archivist of the United States, House Oversight Committee Chairman Henry Waxman is asking whether the CIA violated the Federal Records Act when it destroyed the videotapes.

Adam Zagorin writes in Time that Congress has no appetite for probing too deeply into torture: "Clearly, there are rich seams of evidence to mine for any legislators wishing to test the CIA's oft-repeated assertion that it never tortures captives and that all of its secret interrogations and other activities have been conducted in full compliance with the law. But so far, there have been few takers. Absent a political change of heart on Capitol Hill, the congressional inquiry into the destroyed videos may limit itself to matters of bureaucratic accountability."

Scott Shane writes in the New York Times: "For six years, Central Intelligence Agency officers have worried that someday the tide of post-Sept. 11 opinion would turn, and their harsh treatment of prisoners from Al Qaeda would be subjected to hostile scrutiny and possible criminal prosecution.

"Now that day may have arrived, after years of shifting legal advice, searing criticism from rights groups -- and no new terrorist attacks on American soil."

The danger of domestic prosecution is minimal.

Shand writes: "Most legal scholars say that even under a future administration, the Justice Department would not seek charges against C.I.A. officers for actions the department itself had approved.

"Another obstacle to such prosecutions would be the laws passed by Congress in 2005 and 2006 granting extensive legal protection for authorized conduct. But the videotape destruction may not have such protection; the episode recalls the adage of Washington scandals -- that it's not the crime, it's the cover-up that leads to trouble."

But then there's the possibility of legal action outside our borders.

Shane writes: "The Center for Constitutional Rights in New York, which unsuccessfully sought charges against former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld during a recent visit to France, has pledged to pursue criminal torture charges against former Bush administration officials when they travel abroad.

"'The only way to restore the moral authority of our country,' said Michael Ratner, the group's president, 'is accountability.'"

Rosa Brooks writes in her Los Angeles Times opinion column: "If I had to guess, the tapes were destroyed because obstruction-of-justice charges are no big deal compared to war crimes charges."

Climate Change Watch

Juliet Eilperin writes in The Washington Post: "U.N. Secretary General Ban Ki-moon conceded Wednesday that the United States had succeeded in achieving one of its key objectives at the climate conference here, blocking a proposal that called on industrialized nations to cut their greenhouse gas emissions by 25 to 40 percent by 2020. . . .

"The Bush administration's victory, which came even as a succession of foreign ministers took the podium to call for bolder action to fight global warming, sparked criticism from developing countries that are predicted to feel the greatest effects from a changing climate. . . .

"Danish Climate and Energy Minister Connie Hedegaard said Thursday that European Union members would continue pressing to include a range of emissions targets as part of a final framework document.

"'We all came here with the expectation that something has changed in American politics, which to some extent would be reflected here in Bali. It's still sort of strange to see the American delegation is not particularly engaged a lot in the debate, to put it diplomatically,' Hedegaard said in an interview."

The Associated Press reports: "Al Gore said Thursday the United States is 'principally responsible' for blocking progress at the U.N. climate conference, and European nations threatened to boycott U.S.-led climate talks next month unless Washington compromises on emissions reductions."

Middle East Watch

Susan Page and Richard Wolf write in USA Today about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's roundtable interview with reporters and editors there yesterday.

"The White House is in the midst of preparations for Bush's first trip as president to Israel next month. Rice called it an opportunity for him to push 'in a hands-on way' for a Mideast breakthrough in the final year of his tenure."

From the transcript: "[T]he President has an extraordinary way of sitting with people and eliciting from them where the enablement might be to get something done. Where are the sticking points? And not in a way that says all right I'm going to go ahead and fix this for you, but just talking to the parties. And I think actually talking to them individually by that time will be very helpful because he'll be able to get a strong sense of where the points of convergence are that maybe they won't see, and where the points are divergence are as well.

"I watched the President the morning of Annapolis and when the parties were having a little trouble seeing that there really was a joint statement that they were very close to making, and I watched him just elicit from them why they were having difficulty realizing how close they really were. And I think you'll probably see him do quite a lot of that the next trip."

But could we please get another example of Bush's great diplomatic skills? Bush's last-minute intercession in Annapolis resulted less in a meeting of the minds than a joint decision to punt.

As Glenn Kessler wrote in The Washington Post, the deadlock was resolved "mainly by the watering down or elimination of phrases that troubled each side."

Revisionism Watch

Bush's most controversial contribution to foreign policy has been his doctrine of preventive, preemptive war. According to the Bush Doctrine, the United States must deal with threats before they fully materialize.

But in the years following the doctrine's first application in Iraq -- where, of course, it turned out the threat wasn't there -- it's been unclear whether the Bush administration still considered the doctrine to be in effect. In fact the widespread assumption has been that the Bush Doctrine was dead, dead, dead.

But not until yesterday, to my knowledge, had any senior administration official endorsed the Bush Doctrine by arguing that the invasion of Iraq was not actually an application of it. From the transcript of Rice's interview with USA Today:

Q: "After 9/11, the President declared a policy of preempting threats to the nation before they fully manifested themselves. Yet we've seen some of the intelligence about those threats is often flawed, significantly. Can the preemption policy coexist with imperfect intelligence?"

Rice: "Well, I would argue with you there. I don't mean argue with you, I would argue that I don't think we have yet employed preemption. We could have a discussion about Iraq, a continuing state of war since '91, shooting at our airplanes, almost a half dozen or more resolutions on this issue. I think this was a long, long buildup. And I think it was a case in which you implement it or you had pretty much exhausted diplomatic options with Iraq."

And then later in the interview:

Q: "It's striking to me that you say that Iraq is not an example of preemption. Certainly there was the Persian Gulf War agreement --"

Rice: "Yes."

Q: "But that wasn't cited very broadly at the time. It was that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction."

Rice: "Yes."

Q: "And refused our various requests and if they did not comply, we were going to go to war to preempt."

Rice: "No, we were going to go to war to carry out what had been a -- first of all, a long history of demands against Iraq for its weapons program, weapons programs, resolution after resolution after resolution. . . .

Q: "And how do you define preemption in the sense of going to war to deter a threat?"

Rice: "Well, I tend to think that you don't have a long diplomatic buildup of the kind that we experienced. And, in fact -- look, if by preemption you mean -- and there are many definitions of it. I used to teach this. There are many definitions of preemption. But if by preemption you're asking does it mean that you have to be attacked first, I don't think that every definition of preemption would suggest that if you aren't attacked first then you're preemptive."

So now it's only preemptive if there's no warning? Preposterous.

Please, Ma'am, May I Have Another?

As I wrote in Monday's column, Moment of Reckoning, Dana Perino on June 5 said she would say more about the CIA leak investigation if and when convicted vice presidential aide I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby dropped his appeal.

Q: "And if Scooter Libby says, 'I'm not going to appeal'?"

Perino: "Well, then we'd have to take that into consideration and I'd have to come back with more reaction."

Sounds like a promise to me.

But on Tuesday, after Libby dropped his appeal, Perino said she'd forgotten about the civil suit filed by outed CIA agent Valerie Plame Wilson and her husband -- a suit that's been dismissed, although Plame is appealing. Perino said she still couldn't comment.

So, did reporters at yesterday's briefing express outrage at her about-face and demand answers? No. The leak case was brought up exactly once, and here's the exchange in its entirety:

Q: "Can you assure us that once the Wilsons' civil suit is resolved, the President will speak out about the Libby affair?"

Perino: "I would assume that once everything -- once that is settled, yes, I would hope that we could be able to comment further."

Karen Hughes Watch

The Associated Press reports: "President Bush made an impromptu appearance at the State Department to bid farewell to one of his closest advisers, Karen Hughes, who left a top diplomatic position on Wednesday to return to Texas and private life.

"'I wouldn't be standing here without Karen Hughes,' Bush said at a lively going-away party. . . .

"'One of her jobs was to teach me how to speak English,' Bush joked in a reference to his sometimes inept command of the language, prompting loud laughter and a rejoinder from Hughes.

"'How'd I do?' Hughes asked, drawing a look of mock indignation from Bush.

"'I'll deliver the punch lines,' the president said sternly, adding: 'She never was that good at writing jokes.'"

Todd J. Gillman writes for the Dallas Morning News that Bush also had warm words about Hughes's latest gig, saying: "She is a consequential person. And I am confident that she has begun a cultural change throughout our State Department that will stand in good stead; it'll help the country."

But keep in mind that Hughes wasn't hired to create cultural change inside the State Department; she was hired to improve America's image abroad. And she failed miserably at that task, at least in part because she failed to use her close relationship with Bush to get him to stop doing the things that made her job so impossible.

Kissinger Watch

Henry Kissinger weighs in on the Iranian national intelligence estimate in a nearly 1,600-word Washington Post op-ed this morning.

"In short," he writes, "if my analysis is correct, we could be witnessing not a halt of the Iranian weapons program -- as the NIE asserts -- but a subtle, ultimately more dangerous, version of it that will phase in the warhead when fissile material production has matured."

He adds: "I am extremely concerned about the tendency of the intelligence community to turn itself into a kind of check on, instead of a part of, the executive branch."

Bush and Barney

Sheryl Gay Stolberg writes in the New York Times: "President Bush may call the shots around the White House. But now there is video proof that his dog Barney doesn't listen to him."

Stolberg notes that at the end of the latest BarneyCam movie, released on the White House Web site yesterday: "The credits roll and then the movie cuts, Hollywood style, to an outtake of Mr. Bush trying to shoot the first scene, in which he informs Barney that the White House grounds are themselves a national park.

"Barney, apparently unimpressed, runs away, ignoring presidential orders to come back."

Fun With Dick and Dave

Mary Ann Akers and Paul Kane write in The Washington Post: "After being grilled by the Senate intelligence committee for more than an hour Tuesday, CIA Director Michael Hayden went to Vice President Cheney's annual holiday party, where he endured more interrogation for a full 20 minutes from the Fourth Estate.

"Ensnared in a scandal over the destruction of waterboarding videotapes, Hayden fielded questions -- off the record -- from eggnog-lubed reporters. He withstood the friendly Q and A with smiles and a relaxed air (aided by a nice, cold beer) until he spotted someone who could stop the torture: Cheney chief of staff David Addington. 'David, save me!' Hayden jokingly shouted.

"Addington obliged and physically pulled the Air Force general from the scrum of reporters."

Cartoon Watch

John Sherffius on the Black House; Dwane Powell on Bush's climate-change plan; Kal on Bush's priorities; Patrick Corrigan on Bush's holiday card from Iran.

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