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A Tipping Point?

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There have been a few different events this week that could foreshadow a different approach towards the President. It looks like his aura of invincibility may have been chipped away in a number of important ways, and for the first time there may be reason to think an effective push against his imperial style has begun.

For starters there is Seymour Hersh's latest installment in his series of essays on the Bush administration (short version: it's roughly how Sam Houston characterized Jefferson Davis). By publicizing the shift in strategy from justifying a big war over nuclear weapons (as in "we don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud") to smaller strikes against Revolutionary Guard targets Hersh shows the administration simply wants war. As in Iraq, the goal is to once again find one reason everyone can agree on. It's a fairly damaging piece of reporting despite White House dismissals and might (might) lead to a stronger effort from Congress to prevent the President from starting another war.

Next is the AP report that "[a] program to employ spy satellites for certain domestic uses is on hold indefinitely" because "lawmakers demanded more information about its legal basis and what protections are in place to ensure the government is not peering into Americans' homes." What's interesting is that a Department of Homeland Security program is being delayed because of concerns from lawmakers. DHS is an executive branch agency and in the past few years we've gotten used to the executive branch paying no heed to the legislative. The article doesn't (maybe can't) go into more detail but it would be nice to know how legislators' concerns prompted DHS to change course. The bigger picture, though, is that the legislature objected and the executive backed down. We haven't seen too much of that lately.

Then there were the two signs of life from Congressional Democrats: Henry Waxman turning down a Republican request to postpone the Blackwater hearing and David Obey's statement that he wouldn't allow a military budget out of committee if it didn't have a withdrawal deadline of January 2009. Obey's threat will be the much more important story if he actually follows through on it. It's the kind of political move that could force a confrontation with the President because it narrows the opposition to the House Appropriations Committee, perhaps just Obey himself. Senate Republicans can't filibuster it, Senate and most House Democrats can feign powerlessness (shouldn't be a stretch) and it could turn into an Obey-Bush showdown. I don't know enough about Obey to make a prediction, but if he decides to go to the mat over it the Democrats' weakness as a caucus would be completely out of play.

Waxman's moving ahead with the Blackwater hearing is another first. Congressional Republicans have provided political cover for George Bush by implementing a policy of delay and filibuster. Since Bush doesn't want to veto bills he has his allies prevent them from getting to his desk, and since he doesn't want oversight he looks to delay investigations any way he can. He has been largely successful in this and has had the full cooperation of the Congressional GOP. Putting off an embarrassing hearing about the conduct of mercenaries in Iraq is of great interest to the White House but they were prevented from doing so this week. And speaking of vetoes, he was forced this week to issue just the fourth of his presidency. The fact that it (a) passed when he didn't want it to (b) is very popular (c) couldn't be vetoed under any principle he could credibly claim and (d) might go into law anyway is a remarkable set of circumstances. Any one of them would have been hard to imagine a year ago and yet this week all came together in a single bill. Moreover, afterwards Republican Charles Grassley of Iowa said: "The administration's position ... it was either 'my way or the highway.' Well, that's not how the legislative process works. Now we've got to do what we can to try to override." It's a stunning and rare intraparty rebuke of Bush as well as a welcome reminder of how our government is supposed to work.

Finally, some footnotes. Former DOJ lawyer Jack Goldsmith testified before Congress about White House lawbreaking as part of its Citizen Surveillance Program, a federal judge threw out Bush's executive order to let ex-Presidents hide their papers forever and there were new revelations about wide-ranging use of torture. (The issues themselves aren't footnotes, just the role they could play in changing momentum at the moment.) Throw in a poll that spells out solid majority opinion against the war and you have an overview of a potentially historic week. Right now it's impossible to say how it will play out, but it's just possible that it represents the moment newly-emboldened actors began a decisive push against an overreaching executive.

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Dan Fejes lives in northeast Ohio.

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