Monday, April 16, 2007

And the winner is... President vs. Congress - Rounds 8, 9, & 10.

I started this series without knowing it was a series. The slug-fest between the Republican led Executive branch and the brand spanking new Democratic majority in the Legislative branch is a topic that is directly in the wheelhouse of this blog's "divided government" theme. I started the series by describing the early posturing and positioning between the pugilists. It was not until I embraced the boxing metaphor in round three that I realized it was a series. The metaphor evolved in subsequent rounds to wrestling, poker, and the Battle of the Pellennor Fields during the siege of Minas Tirith, which carried us through round seven. So now the series has a beginning and a middle, and being a series, it needs an end. Clearly the fisticuffs will continue unabated for the remaining 21 months of this presidency, but I am not interested in continuing to invent even more tenuous metaphors to describe it. So, we circle back to the beginining, call this a 10 round heavyweight boxing match, bracket the match by the calendar first quarter of 2007, and render a decision knowing an immediate re-match is in the offing.

As we last left off, the Congress was leading the President throught the first seven rounds in a close contest. The score stood at 3 rounds to 2 with 2 rounds declared a draw.

Round Eight
Harry Reid made good on his promise to continue to bring an Iraq timeline to the Senate floor until there was a straight up and down vote. Republicans and Democrats in the Senate learned that hiding behind a procedural cloture vote was satisfying neither to the legislature nor their constituents. Finally, after backroom negotiations broke the procedural deadlock, on the Ides of March three resolutions made it to the Senate floor. Two of the resolutions permitted our Senators to go on the record with the controversial stance of firmly "supporting the troops". As reported in the Washington Post:
"... senators overwhelmingly passed a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) that calls for ensuring the safety of U.S. troops by providing the necessary funding, training and equipment. It also states an obligation to ensure medical care for returning troops and veterans. The resolution passed 96 to 2. Two Republican senators, Bob Corker (Tenn.) and Orrin G. Hatch (Utah), voted against it. The Senate then took up a nonbinding resolution sponsored by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) that prohibits cuts in funding for U.S. troops in the field. It was approved 82-16."
The Gregg Resolution was interesting, as the refusal by Reid and the Democrats to permit it as an amendment to the earlier cloture vote, was the pretext used by Republicans to prevent debate on the earlier non-binding resolution in opposition to the surge. The Democratic concession on that vote, was the price of bringing the binding resolution for an Iraq withdrawal date to the floor:
"The Senate today rejected a binding Democratic-sponsored resolution that would have set a target date a little more than a year from now for the withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Senators then approved by large margins two nonbinding resolutions that express support for the troops... The withdrawal resolution... failed to win even a majority, with 48 senators voting in favor of it and 50 against it. The White House had threatened a veto if such a binding measure reached President Bush's desk."
The failure of the vote was a victory for the President, a judgement borne out by the reaction of conservative bloggers like Ed Morrissey at Captain's Quarters:
"Senate Republicans turned back an effort by Harry Reid to set a fixed withdrawal date for US troops in Iraq. Reid lost by a thin margin, 50-48, as three Democrats defected to the opposition for this measure... The Democrats want to keep digging on this issue until they weaken Republican resolve to see the war through to a successful conclusion. Gordon Smith voted with the Democrats, giving them some hope for more erosion later, but three Democrats voted against the bill. Joe Lieberman joined red-state Senators Mark Pryor and Ben Nelson."
Round 8 is scored as a victory for the Executive branch.

Round Nine
This all transpired while I was on a sailing adventure in Mexico, precipitating many searches and blogospheric back-tracking of the news upon my return. I was struck by how little coverage this March 15 vote received, in the main-stream media and blogosphere alike. The reason for the dearth of coverage, was the attention being lavished on Attorney General Gonzales and the eight fired prosecutors. Even within that context, we find another Senate vote that did not receive the attention that it deserves, and is particulary appropos to the Executive/Legislative fisticuffs we are tracking in this post. The coverage in the Washington Post and the Boston Globe was typical, treating this extraordinary Senate vote as if it was a mere footnote to a George Bush press conference that was little more than partisan posturing on the Gonzales hearings.
"The president's press conference was held hours after the Senate delivered a bipartisan slap at Bush, voting 94 to 2 to strip Gonzales's authority to appoint interim US attorneys without Senate confirmation -- authority granted to him in a revision of the USA Patriot Act. The law, passed after the Sept. 11 terror attacks, delivered sweeping new powers to the Department of Justice, based on the need to investigate and thwart terrorism."
"... legislation that would strip the attorney general of a power, granted to him in the 2006 reauthorization of the USA Patriot Act, to appoint interim U.S. attorneys for indefinite periods without Senate confirmation. After earlier resistance from Gonzales and Senate Republicans, the bill is expected to pass easily amid continued fallout from the scandal. Democrats say that the Bush administration used the new power as a means to fire U.S. attorneys who were not "loyal Bushies" -- a phrase used by Gonzales's top aide, D. Kyle Sampson, who has since resigned, in crafting the dismissal proposal -- and then to circumvent the Senate in the confirmation process. "We need to close the loophole exploited by the Department of Justice and the White House that facilitated this abuse," Judiciary Chairman Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said yesterday. Previously, if U.S. attorneys left mid-term, the White House and the Senate had 120 days to nominate and confirm a successor. Otherwise, a federal judge from that prosecutorial district would appoint an interim U.S. attorney while the Senate considered the nomination. But, in an almost completely overlooked provision, the Patriot Act included a measure taking that power from judges and handing it to the attorney general, with the appointment running for an indefinite period..."
94-2! By any measure, an overwhelming bipartisan vote to strip the executive branch of a power that the Senate had ceded to the Presidency less than a year before. Maybe George W Bush will indeed turn out to be a "uniter not a divider." He certainly united the Senate on this issue. This story is like a thread hanging out of sweater. The thread does not merit much notice, but when you pull on the thread the sleeve falls off. The real story is not about whether Karl Rove will be under oath when testifying to congress. The real story is about an executive branch that for six years has been on a mission to expand the power of the presidency at the expense of the the other branches of government. The real story is that power is now being taken back fromthe executive by a reenergized legislature and judiciary. How far the pendulum was pushed out, and how far it will swing back, will be the subject of a future post. But for now, in the context of the this Q1, 2007 match - Round 9 goes to the Congress with a bipartisan knockdown vote.

Round Ten
On March 27, the bell rung on the 1oth and final round of the Q1 heavyweight match. This time around, the Senate voted 50-48 to pass a goal of withdrawal from Iraq, attached to the emergency funding resolution. The vote was not expected, as outlined in this recent post:
"It looked like this time Dick Cheney would be "The Decider", and cast that vote to defeat the measure. He had prepared a brief, direct and strong statement ready for an impromptu press briefing to be conducted immediately after the vote. Dick Cheney was looking forward to delivering that statement. That is when I would have liked to be that fly on the wall. When Dick Cheney was informed that Chuck Hagel decided to put principle over party and vote for the resolution. On this day, Dick Cheney was not "the decider". On this day it was Chuck Hagel who cast the deciding vote."
With that vote the wheels were put in motion by our representatives in Congress to deliver to the desk of the President a war funding bill that defines a new Iraq mission. A new Iraq mission that is in concert with the expressed wishes of a majority of Americans. The President has promised to veto the bill. Regardless of the President's action, or the dispostion of any replacement bill to the one that is vetoed, the very fact that this bill will hit his desk is a loss for the Presidency. A judgement reinforced by Captain Ed's coverage of the vote:
"Harry Reid won his most important victory as Senate Majority Leader today by unexpectedly passing the supplemental spending bill for Iraq with the mandatory timetables for withdrawal within 12 months. Two Senators, Ben Nelson and Chuck Hagel, reversed their stand on the automatic withdrawal from less than two weeks ago, when the Senate last considered it..."
Round 10, and the final round of the first match, scored for Congress.

The final score is complete for the first quarter match. The winner, by unanimous decision, in the first quarter President vs. Congress Divided Government Heavyweight Match is - Congress! Scored 5 rounds to 3 with 2 rounds scored as draw.

The President has demanded a rematch in Q2.

UPDATE: April 19, 2007
A Washington Post round-up completes the narrative:
The President blusters. Congress confers to finalize the war funding bill. The President invites discussion. Partisan postures are on public display. In the background a compromise war funding bill takes shape.

DWSUWF extapolates where this narrative arc is going:
Both parties are now politically invested in a veto. The veto is necessary to clear the partisan detrius from the political decks. After the veto, a compromise bill with less pork and softer language on the withdrawal timetable will be passed by the legislature and signed by the executive. Both parties will declare victory. The country will get a better, more rational, and less wasteful funding legislation.

Chalk up another win for Divided Government.

Divided and Balanced.™ Now that is fair.

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