Tuesday, June 12, 2007

By the Skin of His Teeth

As most of you are probably already aware, the U.S. Senate fell seven votes short yesterday of mustering the 60 votes it needed to overcome a Republican filibuster and proceed with a “vote of no confidence” on Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.

On the surface of things, this appears to have been a win for the Bush White House, which has stuck by Gonzales--a guy who’s been with George W. Bush ever since the latter was governor of Texas--even though, according to syndicated newspaper columnist Bob Novak, many leading Republicans “see Gonzales as an embarrassment to the party.” But the very fact that such a vote was scheduled, and that a majority of senators ultimately elected to rebuke Gonzales for making false statements in regard to the firing last year of nine U.S. attorneys, and his abject politicizing of the Justice Department “still registered a strong, if symbolic, rebuke of the nation’s chief law enforcement officer,” to quote The New York Times.

As Paul Kane notes in today’s Washington Post, “Republicans declined to defend the embattled presidential confidant but rejected the effort as a political stunt.”

Forty-three Democratic members of the Senate voted to cut off debate (aka “invoke cloture”) and move ahead with consideration of this resolution, which stated simply that the scandal-ridden Gonzales “no longer holds the confidence of the Senate and of the American people.” And Dems were joined in backing the nonbinding resolution by seven Republicans: Susan Collins (ME), Olympia Snowe (ME), Gordon Smith (OR), Chuck Hagel (NE), and John Sununu (NH), along with Arlen Specter (PA), the Ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, who had announced his intention early in the day to vote for the no-confidence resolution (thus putting the lie to GOP opponents of this measure, who claimed it was naught but a “political stunt”). Seven senators cast no votes, and one--Alaska’s Ted Stevens--voted “present.” Joe Lieberman--who’s demonstrated considerable peevishness toward his former party colleagues, ever since Connecticut Democrats refused to endorse him for re-election in 2006 (provoking Lieberman to run as an Independent, instead)--once more sided with his buddy Bush and voted against cloture.

Gonzales will go down in U.S. history books as one of the few national politicos to be threatened with a vote of no confidence--which, as Slate observed recently, is really a feature of parliamentary systems, not democratic ones.
The vote of no confidence has rarely appeared in American history. In 1950 Congress passed such a vote with respect to Secretary of State Dean Acheson, who they said had not done enough to combat the spread of Communism. Nevertheless, Acheson was able to serve until the end of the Truman administration. Historians have to reach back to Grover Cleveland’s administration to find an example of an attorney general in a similar situation. In 1886, Republicans passed a resolution censuring then-AG Augustus Garland, who had refused to turn over executive papers relating to his dismissal of a U.S. attorney from the southern district of Alabama. Garland was also thought to have had improper financial interests in a new telephone company.
But though yesterday’s non-vote on Gonzales has no impact in terms of changing Justice Department leadership, it showed that Republicans are hypocrites on the subject of filibusters. As Steven Benen of The Carpetbagger Report writes today:
For the last few years, congressional Republicans would cry “obstructionism!” at the drop of a hat. Any effort to block a floor vote was outrageous, offensive, and possibly even unconstitutional. What mattered, more than anything, was preserving the notion of majority rule. To filibuster was to be literally un-American. In just the last few months, however, the Senate GOP has filibustered a non-binding resolution criticizing Gonzales, a minimum-wage increase, a debate over a non-binding resolution on the war (twice), and a bill that would have led to lower prices on prescription medication. All from the party that whined about non-existent obstructionism for six years. Funny how times change.
This resolution contest also further exposed the prez’s arrogance about his current office. During a press confidence held yesterday in Bulgaria, Bush was asked whether a congressional denunciation of Gonzales would have any bearing on the AG’s future. He responded: “And they can try to have their votes of no confidence, but it’s not going to determine--make the determination who serves in my government.” Your government, George? Hardly. It’s our government, we the people, and you serve at our pleasure. You’re neither a potentate nor a king, as much as you might think you are.

Pennsylvania’s Specter told the press that he suspects yesterday’s effort to reprimand Gonzales will only strengthen his boss’s self-defeating determination to keep the AG on. “My own hunch,” Specter is quoted as saying, is that the vote “is going to be a boomerang.”

That, however, would just play right into the Democrats’ hands. Bush is pretty much an overgrown child, with a child’s resistance to being told what to do. He won’t throw Gonzales off the bus as long as his opponents tell him he must do so. Instead, he’s willing to stick defiantly with a mortally wounded AG, who has absolutely no credibility on Capitol Hill anymore and is considered by most of the country to be a failure--not unlike Bush himself. Gonzales has become a public punching bag: The longer he sticks around, the longer Democrats can whack at him and his master, and the longer he remains as a symbol of Bush’s disregard for public opinion, the prez’s unconscionable endorsement of torture (it was Gonzales, after all, who told Bush that the 20th-century Geneva Conventions are simply not applicable to captured a-Qaeda and Taliban fighters), and Bush’s total politicization of every government action. (So much for Republican insistence that Bush is above politics.)

Knowing all of this might be why the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on Commercial and Administrative Law has already scheduled a hearing next week on “The Continuing Investigation Into the U.S. Attorney Controversy and Related Matters.” Democrats want to keep the heat on Gonzales, if only to further weaken and distract lame-duck Bush. Within that context, yesterday’s collapse of the no-confidence resolution can be taken as nothing less than a victory for Democrats, not the White House. Republicans might have done themselves a favor to have turned thumbs down on their AG, rather than set themselves up to receive more of the continuing shit likely to pile up around him and the prez. Instead, they made the mistake once more of placing loyalty above good sense.

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In case you’ve forgotten why Alberto Gonzales has become the target of ire on both sides of the political fence, the Democratic Caucus provides this handy primer about his prevarications, abuses, and disregard for the Constitution.

READ MORE:Who Will Be the Last Bush Loyalist?” by Timothy Noah (Slate).

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