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The Cheese Stands Alone

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

"We'll make statements only today," President Bush announced to reporters yesterday as he sat with the Estonian president in the Oval Office.

No surprise there. Vice President Cheney's recent declaration that he is not part of the executive branch has prompted hard questions, and nobody in the White House has a good answer for why Cheney -- who hovered near Bush's desk while the president spoke -- had turned himself into a fourth branch of government.

The explanatory task fell to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, whose skin reddened around her neck and collar as she pleaded ignorance during the daily briefing: "I'm not a legal scholar. . . . I'm not opining on his argument that his office is making. . . . I don't know why he made the arguments that he did."

"It's a little surreal," remarked Keith Koffler of Congress Daily.

"You're telling me," Perino agreed.

"You can't give an opinion about whether the vice president is part of the executive branch or not?" Koffler pressed. "It's a little bit like somebody saying, 'I don't know if this is my wife or not.' "

Give the flushed and flustered Perino credit for trying. The vice president had put her in an impossible position. Already under fire for his secretive ways, Cheney has refused to comply with an order governing the care of classified documents; his office concluded that the order does not apply because he is not "an entity within the executive branch."

That's quite opposite the argument Cheney made in 2001, when he said that a congressional probe into the workings of his energy task force "would unconstitutionally interfere with the functioning of the executive branch." Cheney has, in effect, declared himself to be neither fish nor fowl but an exotic, extraconstitutional beast who answers to no one.

As if to demonstrate his status as the fourth branch, Cheney left the White House yesterday and made his way to the Capitol, escorted by eight police motorcycles, three police cruisers, two armored limousines, and five SUVs and minivans packed with aides and armed Secret Service agents. Cheney spent all of six minutes on the Senate floor, fulfilling his legislative obligations as president of the Senate.

His task was simple -- swearing in a newly appointed senator, Republican John Barrasso of Wyoming -- and was designed to be foolproof. He had a brief parliamentary script to read, and a laminated card printed with the oath of office. But the executive-branch refugee showed himself to be equally unimpressed with legislative custom. Instead of reading the oath of office and having the new senator merely say "I do" at the end, Cheney ordered Barrasso to "repeat after me."

Barrasso, unprepared to utter the entire oath, got tripped up on the line about "mental reservation or purpose of evasion" -- and asked Cheney to repeat it. The fourth branch of government, his duties thus completed, applauded, left the floor and returned downtown in his motorcade.

It's not entirely surprising that Cheney would attempt to flee the executive branch, given Bush's sub-30-percent standing in polls. But Democrats in Congress were not welcoming their new transfer.

"The vice president's theory seems to be one almost laughable on its face, that he's not part of the executive branch," Sen. Chuck Schumer (N.Y.) said in a conference call with reporters from his car. "I think if you ask James Madison or Benjamin Franklin or any of the writers of the Constitution, they'd almost laugh if they heard that."

Madison and Franklin did not return phone calls yesterday.

Maybe Schumer was just jealous. After all, Cheney enjoys perks not available to his colleagues in the legislative branch: a mansion off Massachusetts Avenue, Air Force Two, a West Wing office and a huge staff in the, uh, Executive Office Building next to the White House.

Over on the House side of the Capitol, the chairman of the Democratic caucus, Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), was equally unforgiving. He wants Congress to cut funding for the executive branch to reflect the fact that the Office of the Vice President is no longer part of that branch.

Cruelly, Emanuel said he would also oppose any attempt by Cheney to play in the congressional baseball game, held last night. "He would remake the rules to his liking," the congressman explained.

At the White House, spokeswoman Perino was in urgent need of a relief pitcher.

ABC's Martha Raddatz led off. "Does the president believe [Cheney] is part of the executive branch?"

Perino drew a deep breath and flipped through her notes. "I think that that is an interesting constitutional question," she answered.

Raddatz repeated the interesting question. "I'm not opining on it," the spokeswoman said.

CNN's Ed Henry asked if Cheney's office should get funds "from the legislative branch instead of from the executive branch."

Perino swallowed hard. "I don't know."

The abuse continued. "You're stonewalling," Helen Thomas heckled. CBS News's Jim Axelrod suggested Perino was denying "sky-is-blue stuff" and pointed out that the matter revises "more than 200 years of constitutional scholarship."

"He can't possibly argue that he's part of neither" branch, Koffler said, "and it seems like he's saying he's part of neither."

"Okay," Perino confessed after half an hour, "you have me thoroughly confused as well."

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