Cheney Playing Diminished Role on the Hill
In the fourth and final Congress of the Bush administration, Vice President Cheney is playing a different and diminished role on Capitol Hill.
Having served as the key deal maker on several high-profile issues in the first six years of the Bush presidency, the former House GOP Whip has been largely absent from the negotiating table in the 110th Congress, particularly during the last month's flurry of bipartisan legislative compromises. Current and former Hill aides and administration officials attributed that change to a variety of factors, but all agreed that it was happening.
"Cheney's involvement is much more active now behind the scenes rather than at the forefront," said Candida Wolff, a former senior Cheney aide who also served as the White House's top legislative liaison. She is now a partner at Hogan & Hartson.
In the first six years of the Bush administration, Cheney often served as the White House's de facto point man on Capitol Hill. Beyond his largely ceremonial position as president of the Senate, Cheney regularly rolled up his sleeves and helped to cut legislative deals with both Republicans and Democrats. The vice president was the lead negotiator on budget and spending bills in the first few years of the administration, and later played a key role in talks on legislation dealing with military commissions, torture and the USA Patriot Act.
But his legislative role has diminished significantly in the last few years, and particularly in the Democratic-controlled 110th Congress.
Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, for example, has been the administration's lead negotiator on the housing rescue package that is currently being prepared for floor action next week, as he was on the economic stimulus measure that was signed into law in February. And Cheney was not much involved in reaching recent agreements on Iraq spending, unemployment benefits or the new GI Bill, either.
Wolff pointed out that "the issue set is different" now than it was in some past years.
"His portfolio is never going to be welfare reform and the Farm Bill," agreed another former administration official who requested anonymity.
Indeed, Cheney has mostly waded into negotiations in the past only on certain topics, mostly those related to defense and security. The housing bill and the bipartisan economic stimulus were unlikely candidates for Cheney's intervention.
But the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act update that was signed into law last week certainly was within Cheney's area of interest. It was Cheney who first briefed congressional leaders and committee chairmen on the classified warrantless wiretapping program long before the details were made public, and he was widely seen as the program's lead advocate within the administration.
Yet when it came time to cut a deal with Democrats and Republicans on the Hill, it was Director of National Intelligence Mike McConnell and, to a lesser extent, Attorney General Michael Mukasey who negotiated the broad outlines of the FISA compromise on behalf of the administration, not Cheney. (The actual technical details of the agreement were hashed out by lawyers, not Cabinet secretaries or members of Congress.)
And the supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan certainly was the kind of measure Cheney would have weighed in on during the first few years of Bush's tenure, though most sources attributed that to the fact that Mitch Daniels, the Office of Management and Budget director at the time, had frosty relations on the Hill. When Josh Bolten took over the OMB job in 2003, Cheney's role in budget and spending negotiations receded.
Beyond the specific issues on the agenda, Cheney's stature on the Hill has been affected by the GOP's current gloomy political outlook.
"He's certainly less involved than he was, but that's more to do with the environment than the vice president," said the second former Bush administration official.
That "environment" includes a House and Senate with Democratic majorities, an unpopular, lame-duck president and, of course, basement-level poll ratings for Cheney himself. A Harris Poll conducted in early June gave the vice president just an 18 percent job approval rating, the lowest it's been during the entire Bush administration.
"It is true that his role has diminished considerably," said a senior House GOP aide. "I think a part of it is the realization that he has little cache with our members. He is barely visible anymore. The Democrats did a good job in the past two or three years bloodying him up."
Unlike when Republicans were in charge, Cheney no longer carries the same level of clout when he walks into the negotiating room with Hill leaders. Democrats have developed good working relationships with other administration officials, particularly Paulson, and wouldn't necessarily be more inclined to strike an agreement just because Cheney is present.
While he is no longer at the congressional deal making table, Cheney still plays a part in lobbying members and driving legislative priorities within the administration.
"The vice president continues to work the president's agenda on the Hill," said Cheney spokeswoman Lea Ann McBride.
She pointed out that Cheney regularly calls individual members and meets with key groups in the Capitol. He also sometimes hosts lawmakers at his residence at the U.S. Naval Observatory. In addition to his obvious connection to Republican lawmakers, Cheney still has relationships with a handful of key Democrats with whom he once served in Congress, such as Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) and Sen. Dan Inouye (D-Hawaii).
Cheney also still attends the Senate GOP's weekly lunches, where he sometimes speaks up to advance the Bush administration's causes. Last Wednesday, for example, Cheney spoke at the lunch and urged Republicans not to vote for a measure to block cuts in payments to doctors under Medicare, assuring them that Bush would veto the bill. A few hours later, 18 Republicans defected to support the measure, which proceeded with a veto-proof majority. It became law, over Bush's objection, this week.
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