The More Things Change…
Thursday, January 4, 2007 - the Democrats take control of the House and Senate and for the first time in six years the nation had a at east one branch of the government that won't agree with everything the president says and does. In the House, Michael Scherer noted things went rather well -
Like a rare winter blossom, the fresh feeling of bipartisan cooperation sprouted briefly on the floor of Congress Thursday afternoon. "My fellow Americans, whether you are a Republican, an independent or a Democrat, today is a cause for celebration," announced Ohio Rep. John Boehner, the new Republican minority leader.
He was congratulating his Democratic foe, California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, on winning the 2006 elections. Before him was a packed room that included all 435 members of Congress, dozens of their cherubic children, and esteemed dignitaries like the singer Tony Bennett and the actor Richard Gere, who fingered a string of Buddhist prayer beads in the gallery. The mood was light, especially on the Democratic side of the aisle, where cheek kissing and backslapping were in order. A new day was dawning. A new Congress was set to begin. "Republicans and Democrats can disagree without being disagreeable to each other," Boehner predicted hopefully.
After he was done, Speaker-elect Nancy Pelosi, the first woman to reach the pinnacle of congressional power, took the podium. As on election night, she was dressed in a purple suit, an apparent symbol for the union of red and blue America. "I accept this gavel in the spirit of partnership, not partisanship," the San Francisco Democrat told the assembled crowd. "We have an obligation to reach beyond partisanship, to work for all Americans."
It's more than likely Nancy Pelosi wore purple that day for a specific reason, as that was the color favored by the suffragettes long ago, or so that is noted here. That may or may not be so. It doesn't matter much. The good feeling lasted all of four minutes, before selected Republicans, after the speech ended, were booing and hissing at the Democrats. They actually were - just like in the House of Commons in the UK at Question Time with the Prime Minister. The cause was a parliamentary inquiry, by New Jersey Democrat Rush Holt, that he really should not have filed - something about ensuring that Congress has the ability to overturn the results of that Florida congressional election where the 18,000 votes went missing. It's still under investigation - but the winner so far, Republican Vern Buchanan, was sworn into office anyway. The minority wants the case closed, no matter what turns up later. Things have not been going well for them.
That was followed by the first bill the Democrats introduced - the ethics package that would ban gifts from lobbyists, limit privately funded travel, and close a loophole that gives members of Congress cheap access to corporate jets. How do you argue against that? The Republicans objected that Pelosi had decided to prohibit their amendments, reversing what she had been saying before the election about not using the former Republican rules of procedure. North Carolina's Patrick McHenry charged that Pelosi was ramming the bill "down the throats of all members." So it was payback time. After six years of rules where the Democrats were not allowed to ask questions nor allowed to read the details of the bills before votes (fine print can be a killer), much less ever offer an amendment, this was just an object lesson.
And it got testy with the "but you PROMISED you wouldn't run the place like we did" back and forth -
"The much ballyhooed commitment to minority rights is virtually nonexistent," complained Rep. David Dreier, who as Rules Committee chairman since 1999 had overseen a never-ending Republican effort to curtail Democratic powers to amend legislation. "Promises were made, and they are not being kept," Dreier continued, in his newly discovered role as a champion of parliamentary fairness. "That is the thing that I find most troubling."
A few minutes later, New York Democrat Louise Slaughter, the new chairwoman of the Rules Committee, appeared to be taunting her colleague. "I feel your pain," she said. "I understand your hurt."
"I never used the word 'pain,'" Dreier shot back. "I never said 'hurt.' I said 'disappointed.'" He pointed out that Republicans had not even been given 24 hours to consider the ethics reform proposal, though it was made up of proposals that had been widely discussed in recent months. Even when he tried to submit for the record a time-stamped copy of the legislation proving this point, Democratic Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida raised temporary objections. At another point, Dreier asked that one of his motions be read in full. Democrats tried to object, but he insisted on eating into the Democrats' time.
And so it went. The next two years will be rough. The house has been in the hands of the Republicans for twelve years. Folks there need to get their roles straight, although they're working on it -
When Pelosi announced that the American people were demanding a "new direction in the war in Iraq," the Republican caucus stayed in their seats, while the Democrats leapt up in applause. When she promised to "combat climate change," only about a third of the Republicans joined the Democrats on their feet. When she declared that Democrats would allow no new deficit spending, the Republicans stood only after a noticeable hesitation. The former speaker, Republican Dennis Hastert of Illinois, did not bother to work out his legs at all, choosing to applaud halfheartedly from his seat.
Earlier, the House clerk had read off a traditional verbal roll call to determine Pelosi's election as speaker, a process that took more than an hour. Each vote was recorded with a different ceremonial pencil, emblazoned with the colors of the American flag. As they announced their votes, Democrats called Pelosi, 66, the "pride of San Francisco," "the young lady from California," and "the conscience of America." Rep. Jesse Jackson Jr., a Democrat of Illinois, evoked the names of Rosa Parks, Harriet Tubman and Jesus before casting his vote for speaker. Others invoked "the children of Katrina and Darfur" and the "Ohio State Buckeyes," a football team set to play for the national championship on Monday. As expected, Pelosi won the job with 233 votes, one for every Democrat in the House.
Up in the gallery, the coolest man in the room, the octogenarian Tony Bennett, occupied himself throughout the proceedings by sketching the House floor with a fine black pen and a small notebook. Afterward, the man who first recorded "I Left My Heart in San Francisco" reluctantly displayed his impressive handiwork to curious reporters. When asked for his thoughts on Pelosi, he beamed, "I think she is just the best thing that's ever happened."
And Richard Gere fingered his prayer beads and thought Buddhist thoughts, or non-thoughts - not only more Buddhist, but more appropriate.
There's the now famous one hundred hour pledge - the first one hundred hours in session would bring ethics reform, corporate taxation reform, lower student loan rates (at least back to the former level), and a raise the minimum wage - and it's going to be ugly. Newt Gingrich's promised in the 1994 election there'd be a slate of new laws in the first one hundred days of Congress. In your face, Newt. Who knows what will get done? The Democrats even want Medicare to be allowed to negotiate with the drug makers for bulk discounts on prescription medication for the program, just like the VA has done for a decade or more. The Republicans and the major pharmaceutical companies have to figure out how to explain to the American public why that's a horrible idea. They're working on it.
Pelosi may have said nice things about a new spirit of partnership with Republicans. She didn't mean it, really. You get power you use it. The whiners and the folks doing what they want have just flipped sides.
The folks doing what they want in this case are doing what most everyone wants - including working to find some way to salvage something in the Middle East, a way that actually may not include escalated war as the only solution. We've been told for six years that war for regime change in pesky places is the only solution to foreign issues, and tax cuts for the wealthy the only solution to just about any domestic problem. Could that actually have been narrow-minded? Could there be other, even many other ways to get things straightened out? Who'd have guessed? We were told any other alternatives were between unmanly and treasonous. Now a woman leads a crowd saying "manly" can be stupid - "Honey, when you're lost you really can ask for directions."
But we'll get more of the usual response - "Shut up, I'm driving."
A little of that broke the same day as the new Congress convened, with this -
President Bush quietly has claimed sweeping new powers to open Americans' mail without a judge's warrant.
Bush asserted the new authority Dec. 20 after signing legislation that overhauls some postal regulations. He then issued a "signing statement" that declared his right to open mail under emergency conditions, contrary to existing law and contradicting the bill he had just signed, according to experts who have reviewed it.
A White House spokeswoman disputed claims that the move gives Bush any new powers, saying the Constitution allows such searches.
Still, the move, one year after The New York Times' disclosure of a secret program that allowed warrantless monitoring of Americans' phone calls and e-mail, caught Capitol Hill by surprise.
… "The [Bush] signing statement claims authority to open domestic mail without a warrant, and that would be new and quite alarming," said Kate Martin, director of the Center for National Security Studies in Washington.
"You have to be concerned," a senior U.S. official agreed. "It takes executive-branch authority beyond anything we've ever known."
Most of the Postal Accountability and Enhancement Act deals with mundane changes. But the legislation also explicitly reinforces protections of first-class mail from searches without a court's approval.
Yet, in his statement, Bush said he will "construe" an exception, "which provides for opening of an item of a class of mail otherwise sealed against inspection in a manner consistent … with the need to conduct searches in exigent circumstances."
So THERE! Who is in charge? Pass any law you want. I don't have to do any of what's in there.
This may not be a big deal, of course. No one expects anything sent in first class mail is really private. Was there ever really that expectation? There are too many hands involved in moving it here and there. That the government, on orders from one man, the president, can now carefully read any mail it wants at any time - to see who it should jail for four or five years without charges or any way to argue it's all a mistake - just means bad people will use, as always, other means to communicate, and now good people will too. It's bad news for the postal service, more than anything. The claim, more broadly, that the times have changed and the government has the right to intercept and analyze all its citizens' communications in all media without showing cause and obtaining a warrant, will just spur innovation. It'll be fun - like the days of the underground novels in the old Soviet Union being passed around by hand on typewritten pages. Accept it, as a challenge. We're there now. It's just odd it happened so soon.
The irony is that the Republican mantra that government is generally useless and should be kept as small as possible - the Ronald Reagan way of seeing things - has morphed into a Republican administration that wants to know what is said by anyone (and wants to keep it one file), wants to regulate the consenting sexual activity of all adults (and probably keep files on that too), wants to forbid women the choice to seek an abortion in difficult circumstances, and make sure living wills that you create on matters of how you should be treated when you're dying are vetted by the House and Senate, as we saw in the Schiavo case. This crew seems to have turned into a bunch of East German busybodies. But to their credit, they do seem loathe to regulate business of any sort, if it's a large enough business - hands off the economy. So they're not that bad, or not that East German.
But there is that "we do what we want" element that's somewhat Teutonic.
Consider the BBC report on "Pelosi Day" that the president is going to replace both our top commandeers in the war, General Casey and General Abizaid. Both have argued more troops may not be the answer to the problems in Iraq and Afghanistan, that there may be a variety of other ways to get this all to work out in our interest. Next week the president is set to announce his major escalation plan. They have to go, no matter what they know of military matters, or in the case of Abizaid, cultural matters in the region.
And further -
ABC News' Martha Raddatz Reports: ABC News has learned that the president intends to nominate Admiral William J. Fallon to replace General John Abizaid at Central Command. The announcement is expected next week, before the president gives his Iraq strategy speech, according to US officials.
Officials also tell ABC that the replacement as MNF-I commander in Iraq (replacing Gen. George Casey) will be LTG David Petraeus. Though Casey was originally staying in position till June, he is expected to leave earlier than expected probably in the next few months.
"The president wants a clean sweep" an official told ABC News.
Is that Teutonic? A man with limited military experience - he avoided the Vietnam War with a stateside assignment and even walked away from that - is overriding his generals because he knows how to win this thing and they don't. One thinks of Hitler overriding his generals on the Russian front in WWII - he knew better. Then came Stalingrad. Of course Bush is no Hitler - it's just the leadership parallel in this one arena is curious.
But it's his choice - not the public's choice, nor Congress' choice, nor the Joint Chiefs', nor what the "wise old men" of the Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group decide. When everyone else is wrong you have to do what you have to do.
The dissatisfaction is spreading beyond MSNBC with Keith Olbermann's recent rant. Now we have Jack Cafferty at CNN -
President Bush is expected to call for sending as many as 40,000 additional troops to Vietnam - I mean Iraq - next week. Escalating the war is now being called a surge. Stay the course has been relabeled. It's the new way forward. We did this in Vietnam, remember? The U.S. kept sending troops over there which only led to more people dying.
The same thing will happen in Iraq. The United States is now an occupying army providing over a civil war in Iraq. There is no way forward, just more death, injury in the squandering of our national Treasury. This country has its belly full of this failed operation in Iraq. Read any public opinion poll.
Is 3,006 deaths not enough? How many do you suppose it will take before President Bush's conscience begins to bother him - 5,000, 10,000, more? How many? Meanwhile, the White House continues to try to get you to think that this is something it's not. The word surge is being used to camouflage the administration plans to escalate the war in Iraq.
And it's not just about the troops. The White House says they're looking at a whole range of options including on the economic front. This little misadventure is already cost us half a trillion dollars, and we're losing. But there's never been much of a market for reality in the Bush White House. It's all about the spin you know.
So next week when the president talks about sending more of your sons and daughters to die in Iraq, don't think surge. Recognize it for what it is.
The link also provides the video of that, if it matters. But it doesn't.
Pelosi (and most everyone else) - "Honey, when you're lost you really can ask for directions."
The President - "Shut up, I'm driving."
The more things change…