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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.

Dick Cheney and Nancy Pelosi
Vice President Dick Cheney talks with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi prior to President Bush's last State of the Union address. (Richard A. Lipski)

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.

By Ben Pershing  |  July 17, 2008; 7:00 AM ET
Categories:  Branch vs. Branch  
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Arrogance usually diminishes when most people see that there is no reason for the arrogance. Arrogant people become ignored.

Posted by: deerfly | July 17, 2008 8:38 AM | Report abuse

All things considered, a health development. It's unfortunate that his diminution didn't begin seven years ago!

Posted by: texun | July 17, 2008 10:03 AM | Report abuse

Thank goodness!!! Just maybe we'll avoid a serious world calamity and survive until February - when these maniacs are ejected from the White House.

Posted by: Dean Sellers | July 17, 2008 10:07 AM | Report abuse

So, as VP Draft Dodger Cheney would say,
"SO?" Do you mean to tell me that looney
toons arrogant emporer of the world and
Vice President of the United States Dead Eye Dickey Cheney is still in office,and
now tell me why Nutcase Madame Speaker DINO
Nancy Pelosi took Impeachment off the table? Oh I forgot Cheney is also related
to Barack Hussein Obama,so Iam sure Cheney
will definitely be on Obama's short list
for Vice President as well. Impeach Madame
Speaker Nutso Nancy Pelosi! Jail Cheney!
And Throw Barack Hussein Obama Under The Bus!

Posted by: Ralphinphnx | July 17, 2008 10:35 AM | Report abuse

Cheney's next appearance should be at the Federal SUPERMAX facility in Colorado...

Posted by: Skip Mendler | July 17, 2008 12:47 PM | Report abuse

While Skip Mendler's suggestion has merit, I can think of a better use of Cheney's time.

He and his dimwit cheerleader frontman Bush, along with the rest of the neocon delusionists, should all be sentenced to life terms working as orderlies on the Neuro Ward at Walter Reed.

Then, they can devote their time and "talents" to caring for the courageous brain-injured soldiers whose lives were ruined by being sent off to that war-for-oil that is Iraq.

Changing bed linens and cleaning bedpans for real heroes -- a better fate than Cheney and those other losers deserve.....

Posted by: Waiting For Godot | July 17, 2008 1:36 PM | Report abuse

If Richard Cheney represents the principles under which our country should operate, then we don't deserve to survive.
I feel Cheney is far more of a traitor to America than Benedict Arnold ever was. The fact that his power is only diminishing after almost eight years of disaster shows the courage of the Congress and the sad state our government has reached.

Posted by: Dick Brandlon | July 17, 2008 2:08 PM | Report abuse

Whoops - Cheney is working behind the scenes and this administration still has time to really screw things up royally.

Posted by: Utahreb | July 17, 2008 4:40 PM | Report abuse

Simple, Cheney has lost his clout. Most Republicans I know understand that Cheney has been the real manipulator that got GW into war, into so many lousy decisions. So, now Cheney is OUT of vogue and there is nothing he can do at this late date to change any of that. Cheney, when the facts come out, will have been the real power house in this administration with Bush only acting as Cheney's front man. Of course I do not excuse Bush. He is so lazy he took the line of least resistance and let all this Cheney horror happen. It will take Obama years and years to "change" the mess he will inherit. Then and only then will the details of the Cheney/Bush anti-American interest come to public scrutiny. In the end though, God Be not deceived, God is not mocked for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap. These two have a heavy payment in store. Sad, sad state of affairs.

Posted by: Mari | July 17, 2008 4:51 PM | Report abuse

Good Riddence....he is a very evil man, his wife is just as evil and bush..well we all know he is just the court jester..idiot

Posted by: CHAMPIONS | July 17, 2008 4:55 PM | Report abuse

My most serious hope and dream is to someday see Mr. Cheney in the docket at the Hague with his puppet close behind. My greatest nightmare is that the Cheney/Bush team have one more disaster in store for the world before they are dragged kicking and screaming off the stage - a real and true Armaggedon following their preemptive strike against Iran. If they manage that last gasp of evil, we may all see the Rapture that they so eagerly wish to bring us.

Posted by: Lee Brazil | July 17, 2008 5:24 PM | Report abuse

Thank God he is no longer calling other people derogatory names or shooting old guys in the face with a shotgun while being in possession of an invalid hunting license. Having never done anything right or of good taste while in office, it can all be compensated for by a one-way ticket out of D.C.!

Posted by: Buckaroo | July 17, 2008 9:18 PM | Report abuse

We read reports about drug and crime rings being run from inside prisons.

I'd like to put Cheney to the test; can he run his organized crime 'family' from a Federal "facility"?

If not for the laundry list of crimes against America while in office, then at least for doign business illegally with IRAN while CEO of Halibacon.

Posted by: LALA | July 18, 2008 1:43 AM | Report abuse

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