November 4, 2005
Some Senators Act Like Adults, But Leaders Are Kids
By Mort Kondracke

It's downright scary to contrast the antics of Senate leaders on and around the floor Tuesday with a hearing the following day in the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee.

It's scary because the juvenile, angry, partisan and divisive behavior of the leaders more likely represents the future of American governance than the serious, adult and bipartisan civility of the committee.

Without prior notice, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) unleashed a sneak attack on the GOP leadership Tuesday, calling the Senate into a rare closed session and charging that the Bush administration had "manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq and attempted to destroy those who dared to challenge its actions."

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) went into an immediate rage, denouncing Reid's "stunt" and saying he couldn't trust him again.

Some said that Frist calmed down after the two-hour closed session, but later he wrote to supporters of his political action committee that Democrats had staged "a temper tantrum ... a tactic of the weak, the tactic of a party with no convictions, no principles, no ideas."

The following morning, Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.) conducted their latest hearing in the homeland security's investigation of governmental responses to Hurricane Katrina, arguably the next-most disputed political topic after Iraq and Supreme Court nominations.

Reid charged in his Senate speech that Katrina is an example of the GOP-dominated Senate's failure to exercise oversight over the executive branch. That's just false.

Last month, the committee heard testimony from the Federal Emergency Management Agency's lone official in New Orleans during the hurricane, who described his frantic and futile efforts to get the attention of his Bush administration superiors about deteriorating conditions in the city. That's oversight.

On Wednesday, the panel heard engineering experts say that the Army Corps of Engineers - another arm of the executive branch - may not be repairing levees in New Orleans well enough to withstand the next hurricane. That's oversight, too.

Collins and Lieberman have both said that governments failed "at all levels" during the Katrina disaster - the GOP-run federal government and the Democratic state governments of Louisiana and New Orleans. They are conducting their investigation not just to assess blame, but to make sure such catastrophes don't happen again.

Last July, when Frist assigned the hot topic of intelligence reform to their committee, chairwoman Collins and ranking member Lieberman made a pact that they'd iron out potentially partisan disputes in private, then present a common front to their caucuses and avoid party-line votes. They succeeded.

It was possible because the two Senators are grownups, and moderates. They value getting the public's business done well rather than waging partisan warfare.

Significantly, both are members of the "Gang of 14" Senators who are (so far) blocking Democratic filibusters of Bush judicial nominees and the GOP leadership's threatened exercise of the "nuclear option" to change Senate rules by simple majority vote.

Lieberman told me he would break from the 14 and join a filibuster if he became convinced - which he is not now - that Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito was likely to vote to overturn the 1973 Roe v. Wade decision. "It would mean a lack of respect for precedent," he said.

Lieberman and Collins expressed appropriate dismay at the closed session. Collins said the incident "highlights how partisan the atmosphere has become in Washington. We need to address serious issues in a serious atmosphere."

Lieberman told me, "This place is polluted by partisanship. More than that - it's incapacitated by partisanship."

He added that he believed Reid acted because the Senate Intelligence Committee was "dragging its feet" in investigating the Bush White House's use of intelligence prior to the Iraq war.

That point is disputed by Collins' moderate Maine colleague, Sen. Olympia Snowe (R), a member of the Intelligence panel.
She told a Maine newspaper that "the committee has steadily progressed with its investigation in a bipartisan manner, which is in stark contrast to what the minority said" before the closed session.

Republican committee staffers say they have conducted "more than dozens" of interviews as part of the probe, and matched 500 official statements with the intelligence sources on which they were based.

It's hard not to conclude that Reid called the secret session to keep media attention focused on the indictment of former White House aide Scooter Libby at a time when Bush is trying to change it to avian flu and the Supreme Court.

Democrats had hoped that Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald would indict top Bush aide Karl Rove, too, and conduct a trial of the president's war policy. That's not going to happen.

Bush's use of intelligence deserves a thorough and fair investigation, but it's not clear that partisan Democrats will be satisfied with any conclusion other than that Bush knew no weapons of mass destruction existed in Iraq and lied to the country about it.

It's highly unlikely that happened, since many Democrats examined U.S. intelligence findings before the war and concluded, too, that Iraq had WMD. But it's worth looking into, in a serious, adult way. The subject is too important to be handled childishly.

Mort Kondracke is the Executive Editor of Roll Call.

Mort Kondracke

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