The News Is Mixed

Posted January 15, 2008 at 3:59pm

As Congress returns, there’s good news, bad news and gray zones on the docket for those of us who hope that Democrats and Republicans can work together to solve America’s problems even as they compete for power in an election year.

First the good news: Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) wrote to President Bush last week declaring that “we want to work with you and the Republican leadership of the Congress to immediately develop a legislative plan” for a “timely, targeted and temporary” economic stimulus package to ward off a possible recession.

They requested a bipartisan meeting of Congressional leaders and the president shortly after he returns from the Middle East. He will be back tonight and White House aides say that a meeting with Congressional leaders will be scheduled promptly.

The aides doubt there will be an immediate bipartisan agreement on the contents of the package — each side will develop its own proposals — but it’s clear that an agreement arrived at “through the legislative process” is necessary or there will be no package. And, with economists on all sides predicting recession, it’s a sure bet the public expects such a package to be put in place soon.

There’s more good news, perhaps, in the White House’s willingness — expressed to Roll Call on Monday — to agree to “a short-term extension, as long as it’s short,” of the current terrorist surveillance law while terms of a new one are negotiated.

The current law runs out in 10 days and there are huge differences between the parties — and among Democrats — on how to proceed. Reid wants a one-month extension to allow negotiations, which seems to us a reasonable alternative to playing ideological and legislative “chicken” with a program the administration says is a vital tool in combating terrorism.

Also in the gray zone between good and bad, it appears that Bush will not “go nuclear” on the issue of earmarks by writing an executive order directing agencies not to spend funds listed in last year’s omnibus appropriation conference reports. The White House says the president is conscious that this would impair relations with Congress.

What he will do is still undecided, but a possibility is a “hybrid” maneuver wherein he asks Congress to rescind a list of projects and threatens to issue the executive order later if Congress does not act. This is in the gray zone because it may simply postpone a battle royal.

The bad news lies in House plans to vote contempt citations of White House Chief of Staff Joshua Bolten and former counsel Harriet Miers over failure to produce documents and sworn testimony about the firing of nine U.S. attorneys in 2006. We do not see how this turns out well for anyone.

Attorney General Michael Mukasey has said the Justice Department will not take the case to a grand jury for enforcement. So the House would have to arrest and detain Bolten and Miers itself to enforce the citation — surely an unthinkable action. So House Democrats have to seriously consider whether upholding the legislative prerogative to conduct oversight in this matter is worth a merely symbolic action that will poison relations with the White House.