Player of the Week: John Conyers
House Democrats left town Thursday for the President's Day recess having fired two controversial salvos at the Bush administration -- approving contempt of Congress citations against White House officials while refusing to renew a terrorism surveillance law. House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) was at the fulcrum of both moves, making him Capitol Briefing's Player of the Week.
The decision to resist Bush and the GOP rather than bring the Senate's version of the surveillance bill to the House floor was one made in Democratic leadership offices. Ultimately, it was Speaker Nancy Pelosi's (D-Calif.) call, with help from her point man on the issue, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.). Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) echoed his support from across the Capitol.
But Conyers has been a key actor in the discussions, and he and House Intelligence Chairman Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) will be at the forefront of House-Senate negotiations during the recess week, as Democrats face the task of cobbling together a compromise surveillance measure that can get the necessary 60 votes in the Senate.
More so than on the surveillance bill, Conyers really was the central player in Thursday's move to push contempt citations against White House Chief of Staff Josh Bolten and former White House counsel Harriet Miers.
Last July, Conyers' Judiciary panel approved the two contempt citations along party lines, after Bolten and Miers chose not to obey subpoenas from the committee seeking their testimony on the controversial firings of U.S. attorneys. Since then, Conyers has spent the last six months lobbying his leadership to bring the citations to the floor.
With the help of a few other members -- particularly Rep. Brad Miller (D-N.C.) -- Conyers has also been working to round up the support of enough Democratic lawmakers to convince leaders that the votes were there to approve the citations. His efforts bore fruit Thursday, as 220 of 221 Democrats present voted in favor of the measure. (Most Republicans were absent for the vote, having walked out of the chamber to protest the lack of action on the surveillance bill.)
While the fight over the surveillance measure will play out over the next few weeks in the court of public opinion, the contempt battle will likely take place in the federal judiciary. Assuming that the Justice Department does not enforce the citations, the House general counsel will soon file a civil suit in federal court seeking to compel testimony from Bolten and Miers. That suit would be the first step in what could be a lengthy and consequential legal battle over the limits of executive privilege, and Conyers has been at the forefront of Democratic critics throughout the Bush administration who have charged that the White House regularly oversteps the bounds of executive branch power.
But Conyers has shown some restraint on at least one front. He has repeatedly declined to hold impeachment hearings against Vice President Cheney despite pressure from the liberal grassroots to do so. Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.), a media-friendly member of the Judiciary panel, sent Conyers a letter last month signed by 18 fellow lawmakers calling for hearings on Cheney. Reportedly, Conyers' office was barraged with phone calls on the subject this week.
Whether Democrats will win either of these unfolding battles on surveillance and the contempt citations remains to be seen, but Conyers helped his party throw the first punch in both fights.
February 15, 2008; 2:40 PM ET
Categories: Branch vs. Branch , Dem. Leaders , House , Player of the Week
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