Democrats Keep Focus on Libby

Posted July 6, 2007 at 5:22pm

Incensed Democrats plan to use President Bush’s decision to spare Vice President Cheney’s former chief of staff, Scooter Libby, from prison to bolster their theme of a GOP “culture of corruption” with hearings this week and on the campaign trail.

Democrats have few options to strike back at the president, given their slim majorities and the reticence of Democratic leaders to consider impeachment despite an increasing drumbeat from liberal activists and growing support in some polls. The number of Democratic co-signers to an impeachment resolution for Cheney introduced by Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) is expected to inch higher this week but remains a tiny subset of the Democratic Caucus.

But that doesn’t mean Democrats won’t try to score political points.

House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.) plans to shine a spotlight on Bush’s use of the pardon power to commute Libby’s 30-month prison sentence for perjury and obstruction of justice in the Valerie Plame Wilson leak investigation in a hearing expected Wednesday.

A witness list was expected to be announced today, and the committee also is weighing whether to try to subpoena Libby at a future date. Although Libby could still plead the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination because Bush did not issue him a full pardon and his case remains on appeal, the committee could vote to grant him immunity, according to a Democratic committee aide.

But Democrats are not hopeful that Libby would be forthcoming, given that Bush has not ruled out a full pardon.

Rep. Robert Wexler (D-Fla.) also plans to introduce a censure resolution against Bush over the Libby decision, but it’s doubtful Democrats would want to go through a symbolic floor exercise when leaders are busy trying to jump-start an agenda that has slipped behind schedule. An attempt by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to censure Bush over the warrantless wiretapping of Americans went nowhere in 2006.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Chris Van Hollen (Md.) said the Libby decision would help Democrats on the campaign trail.

“I think it will be one more thing that energizes people going into the next election,” Van Hollen said.

“I think it’s going to hurt all of the Republicans politically because they continue to go along with the president even when his position is untenable,” he added. “Over the Supreme Court building it says, ‘Equal justice under the law.’ You are going to have to put a little asterisk up there and say, ‘unless you are a member of the Bush administration.’”

But Van Hollen cautioned against impeachment. “If we were to get sidetracked on other issues, we would take our eye off the ball on the issues that are most important to the American people, beginning with the war in Iraq,” he said. Impeachment proceedings would be “all-consuming,” and Democrats are trying to pass legislation on energy, health care and more in the coming weeks while holding a series of votes on Iraq.

A new poll last week by American Research Group found 45 percent of Americans support starting impeachment proceedings against Bush and 54 percent support such a move against Cheney.

But Democrats haven’t even been successful at far smaller digs at the White House.

Just before the recess, the House rejected an effort by Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) to defund the vice president’s office because of Cheney’s legal argument that he was not part of the executive branch of government.

Meanwhile, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) urged voters to sign a DSCC petition with a plea for aid.

“It’s at times like these that I realize just how important a strong Democratic Senate is to our nation,” Schumer wrote. “Democrats are fighting the Republican’s [sic] abuse of power but we can’t do it without your help.”

Congressional Republicans were largely silent on Libby during the recess, with the notable exceptions of House leaders. House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ohio), Minority Whip Roy Blunt (Mo.) and Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.) all publicly backed Bush’s decision.

Boehner spokesman Brian Kennedy dismissed the upcoming hearing on the case, saying, “It sounds like a lot more wasted time and wasted taxpayer dollars.

“If you recall anything from the final days of the Clinton administration, it’s that the presidents have this authority, like it or not, and I think the president’s action in this case was warranted, justified and certainly not anywhere near as arbitrary and capricious as some of President Clinton’s actions seemed to be back in 2001,” Kennedy said.

House Republican leaders said Bush did “the right thing” by eliminating jail time, pointing out that no one was charged with the leak of Wilson’s identity as a covert CIA operative.

The last major pardon controversy occurred when Clinton pardoned fugitive financier Marc Rich on his way out the door in 2001, leading to hearings that resulted in heaping criticism of Clinton from members of both parties, but little else.

In an ironic twist, Libby had been Rich’s lawyer, and he helped blunt the criticism of Clinton when he testified on the issue shortly after signing on as Cheney’s chief of staff.

Kennedy said Democrats are trying to distract from their own growing unpopularity as their agenda stalls.

“I think the American people are quickly growing tired of leadership in Washington that does more finger-pointing and investigating than it does legislating,” Kennedy said.