Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Democrats Take Defensive Tack with Bush

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Democrats Take Defensive Tack with Bush

Article excerpt

The Senate wrapped up its business with unusual dispatch on Tuesday. Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, the designated presiding officer, called the chamber to order. "Under the previous order, the Senate stands in recess until Friday," he said. He banged the gavel, and then he left. It took 22 seconds.

But what the session lacked in depth, it made up for in political purpose. By keeping the Senate in session, however briefly, Democrats prevent President Bush from making high-level appointments while Congress is in recess, thus avoiding the process of Senate confirmation.

"We're preserving the Constitution," Senator Webb said, after the pro-forma session. "It's appropriate given how [the Bush administration] is abusing the confirmation process."

From confirmations to annual spending bills and war funding, Mr. Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress are at odds - with both sides settling into procedural trench warfare. Democrats are playing defense since they lack the 60 votes to prevent a Senate filibuster or the two-thirds in both chambers needed to overturn a presidential veto.

A pro-forma session to block recess appointments is a new tactic for lawmakers. Since the late 1980s, party leaders have talked about the possibility of using such sessions to stop recess appointments as well as pocket vetoes, which allow the president to keep a bill unsigned until the legislative session is over. But this week marks the first time it's been carried out.

"It's one of those small things that can be instantly effective," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It also reflects the utter lack of trust that Democrats have vis-a-vis the president and the belief that he will exploit every opportunity provided him."

The White House wants the Senate to take up some 200 executive branch and judicial nominations, including those for two Cabinet secretaries, three members of the Federal Reserve, and the US surgeon general.

Democrats worry that Bush may use the two-week Thanksgiving break to fill some of them, especially with people who are controversial. One is James Holsinger, who is being considered for surgeon general and has drawn criticism for a 1991 paper on the "pathophysiology of male homosexuality."

Bush's previous recess appointments include John Bolton as UN ambassador and Judges Charles Pickering and William Pryor to the US Court of Appeals. With 165 recess appointments, President Bush ranks No. 4, behind Presidents Reagan, Truman, and Eisenhower. President Clinton made 140 recess appointments, according to the US Senate Historical Office.

Senate majority leader Harry Reid says Bush is stalling on nominating Democrats for bipartisan oversight agencies.

"The Senate will be coming in for pro-forma sessions during the Thanksgiving holiday to prevent recess appointments. …

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