Bush Will Temporarily Hand Reins To Cheney

By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

Vice President Cheney will assume the presidency on an acting basis today when President Bush undergoes general anesthesia for a routine colon examination, the White House said yesterday.

Bush will transfer powers under the 25th Amendment, which permits the president to voluntarily hand over authority when he is unable to perform his duties. The White House said Cheney will probably be in charge for about 2 1/2 hours while Bush recovers from the effects of the sedative.

This will be the second time Cheney has become acting president, and under almost identical circumstances to the first. Bush underwent sedation for a colonoscopy on June 29, 2002, and Cheney was the commander in chief for two hours and 15 minutes. That test found no signs of cancer and doctors said then that Bush would need another test in five years. A spokesman said Bush has experienced no symptoms.

The White House labored to portray the situation as unremarkable, announcing it at the daily press briefing only after a long report on developments in Iraq and using words such as "routine" and "standard" to describe it. The president's doctor, Air Force Brig. Gen. Richard J. Tubb, who will supervise the procedure, was not made available to talk about the medical issues, nor was White House counsel Fred F. Fielding available to talk about the constitutional issues.

Bush will have the procedure performed at Camp David, and Cheney plans to spend his time in power at home with his wife, Lynne, on Maryland's Eastern Shore. "I believe he has full capability of responding to anything from the Eastern Shore," White House press secretary Tony Snow said.

The transfer of presidential power in such circumstances is ungoverned by much precedent. The 25th Amendment says a president may transfer authority in writing to the vice president if he concludes "he is unable to discharge the powers and duties of his office." Letters are sent to the speaker of the House and the president pro tempore of the Senate, respectively the next in line to the presidency after the vice president. The president can then reclaim his powers in writing when he thinks it appropriate.

Only twice since the amendment was ratified in 1967 has a president done so: in 1985, when Ronald Reagan underwent a colonoscopy and Vice President George H.W. Bush briefly took over, and in 2002. The process remains so unusual and open to interpretation that Reagan, in his letter, questioned the applicability of the 25th Amendment to his situation, and some scholars argued therefore that he did not actually transfer power because he did not invoke it. His White House counsel disagreed. (The counsel at the time? Fred F. Fielding.)

Through 6 1/2 years in office, Bush has been exceptionally healthy. He turned 61 this month and exercises religiously six days a week. His blood pressure, pulse and cholesterol were all reported better than average in his most recent annual physical, performed last summer.

Doctors found and removed polyps from Bush's colon before he became president but discovered none in 2002.

"Age and history would suggest that there's a reasonable chance that polyps will be noted this time," Snow said. "If so, they'll be removed and evaluated microscopically." Tests on any such tissue removed could take 48 to 72 hours, he noted.

Snow knows a lot about the subject. He had a relapse of colon cancer in March and is undergoing treatment. Shortly after his briefing, he left the White House for his weekly dose of chemotherapy.

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