Senators Question Cheney Role in CIA Briefs
By John Amick
News over the weekend that former Vice President Dick Cheney ordered the concealment from congressional oversight of a clandestine CIA operation brought further calls of reform today in how the Central Intelligence Agency briefs Congress.
"This is a big problem, because the law is very clear," Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said on "Fox News Sunday." "I think that if the Intelligence Committees had been briefed, they could have watched the program. They could have asked for regular reports on the program. They could have made judgments about the program as it went along. That was not the case because we were kept in the dark. That's something that should never, ever happen again."
Democrats pointed to the reports of Cheney's involvement as a clear violation of the legal authority granted to the vice president.
"You can't have somebody say, well, if you're vice president, you don't have to obey the law," Sen. Pat Leahy (D-Vt.) said. "But if you're the soldier out this in the field or if you're a civilian, you had better obey the law. You can't do that. Democracy can't do that."
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) defended Cheney, saying more facts need to be revealed on what the program actually was and how developed the operation was.
"Some of the Intelligence Committee people are pushing back on those stories," Sen. Sessions said. "I don't know what the facts are. But I believe that Vice President Cheney served his country with as much fidelity as he could possibly give to it. And he tried to serve us in an effective way. And I hope that nothing like this would impact on his outstanding record."
"That's a serious breach," Sen. Kent Conrad (D-S.D.) said of the withheld information on CNN's "State of the Union." "Look, you can't gloss over it.... This is a question of whether something was not given the elected leaders of the Congress, which is required by law. That's a serious matter."
At least three Republicans, Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Sen. John Cornyn of Texas invoked past or possible future actions by Congress and a sitting president as examples of how appointing a special council or prosecutor to investigate the Bush-era CIA's interrogation of certain terror suspects, as Attorney General Eric Holder is reportedly considering, would lead to an endless amount of partisan witch hunts.
"If he (Holder) does that, he needs to go all the way back to 1995 and investigate the Clinton administration renditions, which might have led to -- to interrogations in other countries at a time when he was the deputy attorney general, and ask what laws were broken; did he know about it?" Alexander said on "State of the Union."
Despite many Democrats advocating investigation in some form of the legality of the Bush administration's national security activities, one point, made by Sen. Cornyn, may trump all: President Obama has yet to voice any support to such probes.
"I hope that the attorney general listens to the president, who says, 'We need to look forward, not backward,'." Cornyn said. "This is high-risk stuff, because if we chill the ability or the willingness of our intelligence operatives and others to get information that's necessary to protect America, there could be disastrous consequences."
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), Obama's rival in last year's presidential campaign, admitted that CIA agents were ordered to do legally questionable duties, but he still thinks the Obama-approved "move forward" model is best for the country.
"We all know that the operatives who did it most likely were under orders to do so," McCain said on "Meet the Press." "For us to continue this and harm our image throughout the world -- I agree with the president of the United States, it's time to move forward and not go back."
Familiar pros and cons on Judge Sotomayor
Members of both parties repeated a barrage of familiar pros and cons on the qualifications of Judge Sonia Sotomayor as the Senate Judiciary Committee prepares for the beginning of Sotomayor's Supreme Court confirmation hearings tomorrow on Capitol Hill.
Sen. Cornyn emphasized quotes Sotomayor made in speeches over the years describing her own role as a judge as a "wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn't lived that life" as a focal point in Republican opposition to the nomination, part of GOP strategy ever since Sotomayor was nominated by President Obama on May 26.
"The problem is you've got to call balls and strikes as a judge," Cornyn said on "Fox News Sunday." "The ethnicity focus, the focus on sex and on race, and saying that there may be different outcomes depending on who the judge is, is antithetical to the whole idea of the rule of law, objective and neutral justice. And that's the reason why this deserves some questions."
Speaking on Sotomayor's claims that her ethnicity affects her judicial outlook, Sen. Sessions, the top Republican on the Judiciary committee, said her oft-repeated views should give pause to anyone who cares for the "core of the American system."
"This is a mature judicial philosophy that she has stated," Sessions said on CBS's "Face the Nation." "She has criticized the idea that a woman and a man would reach the same result. She expects them to reach different results. I think that's philosophically incompatible with the American system."
When fellow "Face the Nation" guest Sen. Leahy suggested Republicans would have opposed anyone President Obama selected to fill the vacancy left on the court by the resignation of Justice David Souter, Sessions reiterated his view of Sotomayor's "judicial activism."
"I am really flabbergasted by the depth and consistency of her philosophical critique of the ideal of impartial justice," Sessions said. "I think that's a real expression of hers. And I think it does not show up as much on the lower court where you're supervised by your circuit in the Supreme Court."
Democrats were quick to point out several factors that signal a fairly easy confirmation process, including her unprecedented judicial experience for a Supreme Court nominee, her mainstream voting record, her powerful personal story and her status as the first Hispanic to be nominated to the high court.
"She has shown to be a mainstream judge. You don't have to guess what kind of a judge she's going to be," Sen. Leahy, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, said on "Face the Nation." "We've had a lot of judicial nominees of both Republicans and Democrats talk about the background, how that has influenced them. Former President Bush talked about empathy when he nominated a Republican to the Supreme Court. You know, the fact is her answers are these: Ultimately and completely, the law controls."
Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), Democratic Whip in the Senate, mentioned the bipartisan support Sotomayor has garnered in her career. "She is a restrained and moderate jurist who was put on the bench initially by Republican President George Herbert Walker Bush and promoted by President Clinton," Durbin said on ABC's "This Week." "She's an exceptional person. I believe she's going to do very well."
In response to criticism that Sotomayor had judged improperly in a case of a group of mainly white firefighters in New Haven, Conn., (who claimed discrimination when they were denied promotions after none of the minorities in the department did well enough on a crucial exam leading to the abolishment of all test scores) when she backed the city of New Haven's actions, Leahy pointed out her decision on the appellate court was one, in fact, that followed precedent of earlier rulings, the exact kind of non-activist ruling conservatives claim to embrace.
"She simply followed what the Supreme Court rulings were at that point," Leahy said. "She did what a judge is supposed to do. She followed the court."
Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), on NBC's "Meet the Press," said he believes Sotomayor will get at least 78 votes, just as Chief Justice John Roberts earned when he was confirmed in 2005. Whether or not Sotomayor might receive the kind of vote totals some controversial serving justices collected -- Justice Scalia got 98 votes in 1986 -- remains to be seen.
Health-care reform peaks and valleys
Health-care reform in Congress has had its peaks and valleys in the past month, as Democrats attempt to keep their own party as a cohesive unit while trying to cull any support at all from the GOP for a wide range of proposed initiatives. One recent proposal is taxing taxing wealthier Americans to make up for more than $500 billion of the over $1 trillon price tag.
Of that surcharge (a tax of 1 percent that starts for individuals earning about $250,000 a year, and 3 percent for those making a million dollars a year or more), Schumer admits it's an option being discussed, but wouldn't go further on that aspect of negotiations in the Senate Finance Committee.
"I believe that (Senate Finance Committee) Chairman (Max) Baucus' goal to have a plan that pays for it (health-care reform) set by the end of this week will happen," Schumer said. "Now, to get into the specifics ..... obviously the surcharge has a benefit; it meets the president's goal of not taxing anybody below $250,000. But I think to negotiate in public when there are many different options is not going to be very helpful, so I'm not going to do that."
Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), the Republican Whip in the Senate, countered, voicing concern that the surtax would fall heavily on small businesses. "At least 55 percent of the income that would be generated by this surtax directly hits the entrepreneurs who run these small businesses," Kyl said on "This Week." "It would be a job killer. It would be exactly the wrong thing to do any time, but especially when we're in the middle of a recession."
Department of Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius said the Obama administration would like to avoid taxing employer-based health care, but no ultimatums have been made as many legislative versions of reform float around Congress.
"I think the president continues to reemphasize that he has opposed the notion that we would tax health care benefits, continues to think that is not the best strategy to go forward," Sebelius said on "State of the Union." "If at the end of the day that's the chosen way, I mean, the House clearly doesn't have it in, the (Senate) health committee doesn't have taxing benefits as part of the proposal. We're waiting to see what (Senate) Finance comes up with."
On taxing employer-provided health benefits, Sen. Gregg pointed the finger at unions for heavily influencing Democratic opinion. "I think the UAW (United Auto Workers) is calling the shots there, and that's why it's not on the table because they've got some very high-end health policies, and they don't want them to, their union members to have to reduce those health policies," Gregg said.
Gregg repeated what has become the standard GOP answer when asked of a public option. "A public option is a slippery slope to a single payer system like Canada or England have, which inevitably leads to putting a bureaucrat between you and your doctor and inevitably leads to delays, it leads to rationing," Gregg said.
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) countered on "State of the Union," viewing a public option as no more bureaucratic than the handling of care by insurance companies. "The reality for families today is if there's an insurance company bureaucrat between you and your doctor telling your doctor what they're allowed to do because of what they'll pay for, telling you what they'll pay for, putting you through all kinds of bureaucracy to try to figure out if you can get care, assuming you're not dropped if you get sick or can't get insurance if you have a pre-existing condition," Stabenow said.
Best of the Rest:
-- McCain on Afghanistan troop levels and former Defense Sec. Donald Rumsfeld:
"We've got to remember what worked in Iraq, and that is, it requires additional troops if necessary. Listen to our military leaders. I saw on the front page of the Post this morning, General McChrystal may say we need more troops. Let's tell the American people how tough it is. Let's tell them what's at stake. And I want to work with the president and make sure we win this thing. But let's not try to go back to the Rumsfeld era of trying to just go out, kill people, leave and try to get out of there."
-- Schumer on the economic stimulus:
"This is not a four-month plan, this is a two-year plan. When you have such an awful situation, the worst economy that we've had in December, the president hamstrung because the usual tools of getting us out of a recession were lowing interest rates but interest rates were already at 1 percent, you need a strong, long-term plan that has a number of phases. Now you're going to see the second part of the stimulus, which is the job creation part, really kick in."
-- Rep. Eric Cantor (D-Va.) on the economic stimulus:
"I do think it is fair to say that the stimulus is a flop. The goal that was set when we passed it was unemployment wouldn't rise past 8.5 percent, and what we see now is businesses just aren't hiring. Even the best projections have us losing 750,000 more jobs this year."
-- Cornyn on Democrats and Supreme Court filibusters:
"Well, of course, it was unheard of to filibuster judges until our friends on the Democratic side filibustered a number of nominees. And unfortunately, a gentleman who might have been the first Hispanic nominee to the United States Supreme Court, Miguel Estrada, who was filibustered seven times and denied an up or down vote -- I don't think that will happen to Judge Sotomayor, even though that precedent has now been established."
-- Cornyn on the implication of investigating the CIA's role, post-9/11:
"So after the Obama administration leaves, the subsequent administration will conduct a grand jury to determine whether the president or any person in this administration should be indicted and prosecuted."
-- McCain on Sarah Palin's resignation as governor of Alaska:
"Well, I wasn't shocked. Obviously, I was a bit surprised, but I wasn't shocked. I understand that Sarah made the decision where she can be most effective for Alaska and for the country. I love and respect her and her family. I'm grateful that she agreed to run with me. I am confident she will be a major factor in the national scene and, and in Alaska, as well."
-- McCain on Palin's decision:
"Oh, I don't think she quit. I think she changed her priorities."
-- McCain on Palin's qualifications as president of the United States:
"I know she's qualified. I know she's qualified."
Posted at 3:44 PM ET on Jul 12, 2009
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