Partisan Quarrel Forces Senators to Bar the Doors

New York Times

Partisan Quarrel Forces Senators to Bar the Doors

By CARL HULSE and DAVID D. KIRKPATRICK, New York Times, November 2, 2005

WASHINGTON, Nov. 1 – Democrats forced the Republican-controlled Senate into an unusual closed session on Tuesday over the Bush administration’s use of intelligence to justify the Iraq war and the Senate’s willingness to examine it.

The move provoked a sharp public confrontation between the two parties as the Republicans lost control of the chamber for two hours and were left to complain bitterly about what they called an unnecessary “stunt.” The confrontation demonstrated an escalation of partisan tensions in the wake of last week’s indictment of the White House aide I. Lewis Libby Jr. in the C.I.A. leak case.

Senator Bill Frist, the majority leader, and other senior Republicans said Senator Harry Reid, the Democratic leader, had blindsided them by invoking a seldom-used rule and that the maneuver had seriously damaged relations in the Senate, where partisan tension was already high.

“This is an affront to me personally,” an angry Mr. Frist said.

He said would find it difficult to trust Mr. Reid any longer.

“It’s an affront to our leadership,” Mr. Frist said. “It’s an affront to the United States of America. And it is wrong.”

But Democrats said last week’s indictment of Mr. Libby, the chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, highlighted anew the need for the Senate to examine the administration’s handling of intelligence. They said the unusual demand for a closed session was made out of frustration with the refusal of the chairman of the Intelligence Committee, Senator Pat Roberts, Republican of Kansas, to make good on his February 2004 pledge to pursue such an investigation.

“We see the lengths they’ve gone to,” said Senator Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat, referring to the disclosure of a C.I.A. officer’s identity. “And now the question is, Will this Senate meet its responsibility under the Constitution to hold this administration, as every administration should be held, accountable?”

After Mr. Reid invoked Senate Rule 21 allowing senators to request a closed session, the galleries were cleared, C-Span coverage was terminated and the chamber’s doors were closed for about two hours. In the end, lawmakers agreed to name three members from each party to assess the state of the Intelligence Committee’s inquiry into prewar intelligence and report back by Nov. 14.

Mr. Roberts denied having done anything to slow the inquiry. In fact, he said, Intelligence Committee staff members were aggressively working on what is known as the Phase 2 intelligence inquiry, so named because the panel completed its initial work on the quality of the intelligence in July 2004.

“We have agreed to do what we already agreed to do,” Mr. Roberts said on the Senate floor, “and that is to complete as best we can phase two of the Intelligence Committee’s review of prewar intelligence in reference to Iraq.”

But Senator John D. Rockefeller IV of West Virginia, the senior Democrat on the Intelligence Committee, questioned Mr. Roberts’s commitment to the inquiry. He said that whenever the panel closed in on the sensitive question of administration handling of intelligence, “then all of a sudden an iron curtain comes down.”

“I have to say in all honesty that I am troubled by what I see as a concerted effort by this administration to use its influence to limit, delay, to frustrate, to deny the Intelligence Committee’s oversight work into the intelligence reporting and activities leading up to the invasion of Iraq,” Mr. Rockefeller said.

Democrats have sought to use the indictment to press for Congressional hearings in both the House and Senate. And Mr. Reid and others have called publicly for President Bush to apologize for the activities that led to the indictment as well as urging the ouster of Karl Rove, the deputy White House chief of staff who also figured in the investigation. Democrats say the administration has so far exhibited only a “bunker mentality.”

“We have seen over and over again that this administration does not want to hear information they don’t like,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York. “Instead of, like Ronald Reagan’s administration did, meeting the arguments, they simply choose to belittle the arguer.”

A closed session is infrequent but not unheard of in the Senate and is usually conducted to discuss matters of national security.

Democrats said there had been 54 “secret” sessions since 1929, with 6 of the most recent held during the impeachment of President Bill Clinton.

But the Senate in its early days met only in closed session, prohibiting the public and even members of the House of Representatives from watching. Rule 21 allowing a senator to request a closed session was adopted after the Senate in 1795 opened its doors.

Mr. Frist and other leading Republicans said they were particularly angry that Mr. Reid had provided them no warning of his intention, which they considered a breach of Senate etiquette.

“I’m astounded by this,” said Senator Trent Lott, Republican of Mississippi and a former majority leader. “I don’t really know what the tenor of this is, or what is the justification for it, and why this extreme, you know, approach was used.”

Mr. Reid said he had no alternative because Senate Republicans had repeatedly ignored Democratic calls to finish up the inquiry.

“If Senator Frist is upset about my following Senate procedures, then I’m sorry he’s disappointed with my following Senate procedures,” Mr. Reid said.

He added that he had “zero” regrets about his maneuver. “The American people had a victory today,” Mr. Reid said.


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