On Friday, Oct. 28, the Bush administration’s Lewis Libby was indicted for allegedly lying to a grand jury in its probe of the outing of a CIA agent during the run-up to the Iraq war. The indictment dominated weekend newscasts and political talk shows.
On Monday, Oct. 31, George Bush deftly changed the subject by nominating Samuel Alito for the U.S. Supreme Court. It was a move that had liberal bloggers, who consider the start of the war as badly in need of a good investigation, gnashing their teeth in frustration.
But then, the very next day, U.S. Sen. Harry Reid of Nevada changed the subject back again to Iraq by invoking a little-known senate rule to close the Senate hall. The television cameras were shut off, the public was sent out, the doors were closed, and for some reason, the lights were dimmed. Inside, Reid and his Democratic colleagues demanded that a stalled investigation of the Bush rationale for war be put back on track. When the senators emerged, the Democrats had reached an agreement with the Republicans.
The blogosphere—left and right—went nuts. Senate Republicans, taken completely by surprise at the maneuver, were livid. And George Bush’s effort to refocus attention away from Iraq was ruined.
Who slapped whom?
Republican purple prose filled the air. Terms like “stunt,” “hijacked,” “slap in the face,” “scare tactics” and “blindsided” flew. Republican floor leader Bill Frist said he would have difficulty ever trusting Reid again. (Previously, they were soul brothers.) A Washington Post piece headlined “Mad about you” read, “In the genteel club that is the United States Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) had a screaming temper tantrum yesterday.” The Sacramento Bee said something similar about Reid.
There are conflicting versions of Frist’s remarks, but here are some generally-agreed-upon comments he made: “About 10 minutes ago or so, the United States Senate has been hijacked by the Democratic leadership. … Since I have been majority leader, I’ll have to say not with the previous Democratic leader or the current Democratic leader, have I ever been slapped in the face with such an affront to the leadership of the grand institution. … They have no conviction. They have no principles. They have no ideas. This is a pure stunt. … It’s an affront to our leadership. … It’s an affront to the United States of America. And it is wrong.”
Reid responded that it was the public, not the senate leadership, that had been slapped in the face. He did not mention, however, that last year the Democrats had consented to a delay in the investigation until after the 2004 election.
The Nevada senator was more than a match for the GOP hyperbole. The tape of one heated exchange with a reporter was played and replayed:
Reporter: “Mr. Leader, why not go consult with the leader [Frist]—”
Reid snapped, “Consult with the leader, so he stops me from going and moving on this? What do you mean, consult with him? What are you talking about?”
Reporter: “Well, that’s what he had suggested you should have done.”
Reid: “He can suggest anything he wants. Consult with him? All he would have done is [a] quorum call, and we couldn’t have done this. You got to understand a little bit about procedures around here.”
At another point Reid said, “This Republican Senate does no oversight. None. None. It’s all part of a plan. They obstruct. They take orders from the White House. They do nothing without getting orders from the White House. The separation of powers doctrine is something that does not exist in this town.”
The Republicans said the public has little interest in how the war started—one senator said it’s an inside-the-beltway issue. (In one graceful note, Nevada Republican Party chair Paul Adams put out a statement headed, “Reid’s retchings shut down Senate.” It linked the Iraq war to the “war on terror” and said Reid was an “embarrassment to Nevada.”)
But some observers were less than overwhelmed by the GOP hyperbole. Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz wrote, “Politicians are masters of manufactured outrage. In fact, one might say that’s what they do for a living.”
What was at issue in all this was phase two of an investigation by the Senate Intelligence Committee, led by Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, into how intelligence information was used in building a case for war. The day Libby was indicted, U.S. Sen. Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia had signaled the Democrats’ restlessness with the pace of the investigation: “The fact is that at any time the Senate Intelligence Committee pursued a line of questioning that brought us close to the White House, our efforts were thwarted. If my Republican colleagues are not prepared to undertake a full and serious congressional investigation into the potential misuse of intelligence, then I regretfully conclude that we have no choice but to pursue an outside independent investigation.”
Reid acted two and a half years after the start of the war and a year after the 2004 election.
The Washington Post later reported that Reid dusted off a plan his predecessor Tom Daschle had first developed for a closed session. Daschle said he had intended to use it on Iraq intelligence issues in cooperation with Frist, but Frist “kept putting it off.”
George Stephanopoulos of ABC News, a former Democratic operative, reported, “Democrats had a secret meeting in Reid’s office on Halloween night at 6:15, and they hatched this plot. They said the only way they could get this investigation going was to do it in secret. They say they’ve been frustrated for a year and a half in getting this investigation into whether the administration twisted the intelligence, and they’re making no apologies whatsoever for it.” One account said only four people knew about the plan.
In an editorial, the New York Times pointed out that while the Democrats have a legitimate complaint, they were also partly to blame for delaying the investigation: “Under a political deal that Democrats should not have approved, the Intelligence Committee promised to address these questions after the 2004 election. But a year later, there is no sign that this promise is being kept, other than unconvincing assurances from Senator Pat Roberts, the Republican who is chairman of the intelligence panel, that people are working on it.” (In its news coverage, the Times described the disagreement over the investigation as a “partisan quarrel.” The Las Vegas Sun called it bickering.)
Bloggers in the night
Liberal bloggers were delighted at Reid’s secret session and at GOP outrage.
Www.NewsHounds.us: “[O]h the outrage, the indignation was palpable. Democrats were accused of being in lockstep, shooting the wounded, hijacking the Senate, an absurd political stunt (multiple times), sucker punch, histrionics, affront, delivering a slap in the face, a procedural ambush, casting aspersions, skullduggery and more.”
Buzzflash: “It’s about damned time. This ball of thorns is three years old now, and we have come nowhere near addressing its roots.”
At the conservative American Spectator blog “Wlady” wrote, “One revealing facet of the Democrats’ Senate shutdown Tuesday afternoon was the emergence of ‘Phase 2’ … as a key talking point. … But who knew that was such a sore spot? Surely if Democrats were unhappy with the pace of Phase II, there would have been stories about it in the press.” (Reid’s staff posted on his Web site a list of 23 previous efforts Democrats had made to “address misuse of intelligence” that had allegedly been blocked by Republicans, though 14 of them were before the 2004 election, and one item was a pre-election letter from Democrat Rockefeller to Republican Roberts urging that the investigation not be rushed.)
At the conservative magazine National Review‘s blog, Kathryn Jean Lopez recalled the movie Animal House and speculated that Reid had been inspired by the film’s dialogue: “Otter: No, I think we have to go all out. I think that this situation absolutely requires a really futile and stupid gesture be done on somebody’s part.
“Bluto: We’re just the guys to do it.”
If the postings on Reid’s own “Give ’em hell, Harry” blog are any indication, he has tapped into a rich lode of citizen anger about the lack of accountability over the tawdry origins of the war. Most of the messages were favorable, many sounding relieved—”Oh, Senator Reid, last Friday, Oct. 28, 2005 Special Counsel Patrick Fitzgerald made me once again proud to be an American. Today, November 1, you made me feel the same way. It’s been a long time coming,” wrote Hester Reik. Melissa Harris wrote “Thank you!” 14 times.
Not all approved. Patricia Steward felt so strongly that she posted variants of this message three times: “Mr. Reid, I have watched this with the utmost attention. I think the Democrats have acted so ugly about any and everything the President has tried to do that all of you should go into hiding.” A message signed “Jcrue” read, “Thanks Harry you piece of crap. How about you start representing the majority of what Nevadans feel and not what a majority of the American Left feels? … Go to hell Harry.”
The widespread surprise at the Democrats’ uncharacteristically bold move was a measure of how deep set is the party’s image as a docile opposition.
Disclosure by secrecy
On Yahoo, columnist Marty Kaplan—in a piece titled “Balls!”—wrote, “Finally the Democrats on the Hill have shown some leadership. Instead of being cowed by Bush’s attempt to change the subject to abortion and bird flu, Harry Reid and his colleagues in the political minority have at last figured out that the Republicans are in a minority in every other way.”
Meanwhile, the closed session drew some strong responses from journalists. Society of Professional Journalists President-elect Christine Tatum said, “Senate Democrats clearly want more information about government intelligence leading up to the war in Iraq. The best way to get it is by conducting inquiry and debate out in the open so that the public can make observations, demand answers and hold government officials accountable for their actions. It makes no sense to criticize or combat secrecy with more secrecy.”
In Nevada, the day after the Senate session, open government advocate Andrea Engleman said, “I understand closing the meeting was legal. That doesn’t make it right. The Senate should never be closed to the public. Even more surprising is the lack of coverage in Nevada newspapers this morning.” Some editorials took the same position.
Other journalists did not. In editorials from the Lahontan Valley News to the Oregon State Daily Barometer, from the Sacramento Bee to the New York Times, newspapers supported the Democratic action.
“What a guy is Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.,” said the Minneapolis Star Tribune. “He did exactly what he needed to do to get the Senate to investigate the Bush administration’s manipulation of intelligence in making a case for war with Iraq. Now Reid and his colleagues—including Republicans who put loyalty to country over loyalty to the White House—must work to ensure that investigation is comprehensive. Forcing the Senate into secret session on Tuesday was a brilliant stroke on many levels. Finally, finally, the Bush administration may be held accountable for taking this country to war for false reasons and working to discredit anyone who pointed that out.”
Considering the strong feelings expressed over the closed session, the Democrats didn’t actually achieve much in process terms. The agreement they elicited was that three members from each party will investigate the Intelligence Committee’s investigation and report back by Nov. 14. They have, however, made it more difficult to drag the probe out much longer.
It’s not the first time Reid has outmaneuvered the GOP on procedure. In November 2003, when Frist was planning to lead the Republicans in a 30-hour filibuster over judgeships, Reid got to the floor first and held his own 9-hour filibuster. He said then that his motive was essentially the same as it was this month for the closed session—he was tired of Republican foot-dragging and intransigence.
There was conflicting information on previous uses of the kind of closed session Reid used, which was called under senate rule 21. Early reports said such sessions had been used only twice or three times, and that rarity affected the nature of the initial news coverage. Naturally, it turned out to be false—the Congressional Reference Service later reported that such sessions have been held at least 53 times just since 1929.
Some—Frist included—contended that such sessions are only proper when the senator calling them notifies the leader of the opposing political party in advance, and that was a frequent theme of the early scrapping over the issue. However, the senate rules require no such arrangement.