Oh, the suspense!
Two hours into the nine-hour Senate debate yesterday over Condoleezza Rice, Richard J. Durbin (Ill.), the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, was asked whether he would vote to confirm. "I'll be making a statement," he said coyly.
Thus did Senate Democrats try to keep up the excitement in a debate whose outcome was certain before it began. In truth, it will matter not in the least how Durbin votes: With Republicans solidly behind Rice, Durbin and his Democratic colleagues are powerless to block confirmation when it comes to a vote today.
But in the U.S. Senate, nobody can stop senators, even minority senators, from talking to their hearts' content. In that sense, yesterday's debate was less about Rice than about the opportunity for Democrats to vent their complaints about Bush's handling of the Iraq war and about what they perceive as his administration's contempt for Congress's power of "advise and consent" in presidential appointments.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), for one, was determined to give his advice, if not his consent. A master of 19th-century attire and 18th-century rhetoric, he strode onto the Senate floor carrying the text of an hour-long speech.
"In Federalist Number 77," the 87-year-old lawmaker began, producing groans in the press gallery, "Alexander Hamilton wrote: 'It will readily be comprehended, that a man who had himself the sole disposition of offices, would be governed much more by his private inclinations and interests, than when he was bound to submit the propriety of his choice to the discussion and determination of a different and independent body and that body an entire branch of the legislature.'"
As it happens, Hamilton wrote this in Federalist No. 76, not 77 -- a point made an hour later by Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who displayed the quotation on a poster while delivering another hour-long speech. But Byrd's meaning was clear: Democrats, furious that White House Chief of Staff Andrew H. Card Jr. had said that their insistence on a full day of debate was "petty politics," were determined to show that they were fulfilling their constitutional obligations.
"I am particularly dismayed by accusations I have read that Senate Democrats, by insisting on having an opportunity to debate the nomination of Dr. Rice, have somehow been engaged in nothing more substantial than petty politics or partisan delaying tactics," Byrd said as he fumbled through his pockets for his copy of the Constitution. "The Senate's role of advice and consent to presidential nominations is not a ceremonial exercise."
Republicans had planned to confirm Rice last week on Inauguration Day by a voice vote, with little or no debate. When Democrats demanded time to debate, the GOP senators, rather than miss the inaugural festivities, postponed the vote -- and spent the next five days complaining about Democratic partisanship.
Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), breaking for lunch, went to the microphones to say he was disappointed that "we were unable to have her nomination approved last week." Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said he detected in the Democrats' insistence on debate "a little bitterness over losing the election."
Out on the floor, Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) protested the "inappropriate partisan attacks" and said Democratic "foolishness" risked "adopting our enemy's view of the world." And Sen. George Allen (R-Va.), who never resorts to plain English when a football metaphor will suffice, scolded Democrats for "bump-and-run defenses and tactics" against Rice, for "Monday-morning quarterbacking" and for "playing too hard a partisan game."
The Democrats seemed a bit defensive about the accusations, perhaps because the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee had sent out a fundraising appeal highlighting Boxer's hostile questioning of Rice at last week's hearings of the Foreign Relations Committee. Harry M. Reid (Nev.), the top Democrat in the Senate, professed ignorance of the letter when asked about it yesterday.
Boxer, whose grilling of Rice became material for a "Saturday Night Live" spoof, brought an easel and a set of her now-famous exhibits to the Senate floor for her speech yesterday. Displaying the advise-and-consent clause from the Constitution, she said: "It doesn't say anywhere in here that the president shall nominate and the Senate shall confirm -- I will never be deterred from doing the job the Constitution requires of me."
If her colleagues were moved by Boxer's emotional appeal, it was not evident. As Boxer spoke, the floor was empty of all lawmakers but Allen, who was playing with his BlackBerry. In the end, even Boxer had to acknowledge that Rice "will be confirmed."