By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 12, 2007
Give him a sword and a tunic, and Chuck Schumer would have made a passable Oliver Cromwell as he stood on the Senate floor yesterday.
The New York Democrat, playing a British parliamentarian, had come to seek a "vote of no confidence" in Attorney General Alberto Gonzales -- and thereby deal a blow to the imperial reign of President Bush the Second.
"We have a sacred, noble obligation in this country to defend the rule of law!" said the honorable Member of Parliament from High Dudgeon. "Without rule of law, without democracy, without rule of law being applied without fear or favor, there is no freedom!"
There was one big problem with Lord Protector Schumer's plan: The American system of government does not have no-confidence votes. That's what they do in Britain and other places with prime ministers and Houses of Commons and that sort of thing.
"This is not the British Parliament, and I hope it never will become the British Parliament," protested Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the chamber's No. 2 Republican. "Are we going to bring the president in here and have a question period like the prime minister has in Great Britain?"
The Senate Republican war room even distributed some talking points about the separation of powers -- written by James Madison in 1789.
Facing little risk of an actual beheading, Bush seemed happy to play King Charles to Schumer's Cromwell. Asked about the no-confidence vote while traveling in Bulgaria, the president made it clear: We are not amused.
"They can try to have their votes of no confidence, but it's not going to determine -- make the determination -- who serves in my government," Bush said.
My government? Only in America would the president turn himself into a king on the very same day that the Senate decides to become a parliament.
Though the Justice Department's inspector general is investigating politicization at Gonzales's department, Bush single-handedly exonerated his attorney general. "There's no wrongdoing," he determined from Sofia, repeating his statement of authority: "I'll make the determination if I think he's effective or not, not those who are using an opportunity to make a political statement on a meaningless resolution."
The unusual circumstances of the no-confidence vote brought awkward behavior. Sen. Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) showed up wearing a tuxedo, even though it was not yet evening. Freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) referred to the Senate's presiding officer as "Madam Speaker." Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), under scrutiny in a Justice Department corruption probe, voted "present."
The House, meanwhile, has shown no interest in taking up a no-confidence vote. It spent yesterday on more pressing matters, such as House Resolution 354, recognizing "the official 50th anniversary celebration of the beginnings of marinas, power production, recreation, and boating on Lake Sidney Lanier, Georgia."
Schumer, in announcing his no-confidence plan last month, had seen "a very good chance" that he would get the 60 votes needed to succeed. But Senate Republicans, though disinclined to defend Gonzales, felt comfortable questioning the propriety of a no-confidence vote and attacked Schumer's motives because he runs the Senate Democrats' political campaign.
"I can't understand why it isn't a conflict of interest," argued Mitch McConnell (Ky.), the Senate Republican leader. Lott asked whether "we should be calling for a vote of no confidence in the Senate."
Even Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who supported Schumer's proposal, acknowledged the widely held view that "our form of government does not have a no-confidence vote."
Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), evidently inspired by the Anglophilic proceedings, began with the Bard. "To paraphrase Shakespeare, whether this debate amounts to sound and fury, it signifies nothing," he said, before turning to ancient Rome. "The Senate should not even consider such a resolution, evoking the image of Caesar listening to the chants of the crowd before a thumbs-up or a thumbs-down."
Hatch provided the almost empty chamber with a brief civics lesson. "This is not a parliament," he explained. "In our presidential system of government, the separation of powers means that the chief executive is elected separately from the legislature, and Cabinet officials, such as the attorney general, serve at the pleasure of the president."
Schumer stood at his back-row desk to challenge the monarchists. "It is a rare measure, I know," he said. "It is one with few precedents, but it is called for today because the dire situation at the Justice Department is also without precedent."
Repeatedly, Schumer tossed out words such as "universal" and "sacred" and "highest calling" as he condemned the "Gonzales regime."
"It is politics to put blind loyalty to a political leader over the sacred, century-after-century tradition of rule of law," he said.
Fifty-two senators joined the Lord Protector in defense of the sacred rule of law -- seven short of the number needed to behead, figuratively anyway, the monarch.