National Commentary

Helen Thomas: Bush Bent On Confrontation With Congress

WASHINGTON — You can forget bipartisanship in Washington for the next two years.

With President Bush holding the fort for the Republican conservatives at the White House and the Democrats in control of Congress, there will be more showdowns over who rules the roost.

With the president facing creeping lame duckism and his poll standings in the low 30s because of his unpopular war with Iraq, Bush seems to be determined to keep on fighting for what he believes are his presidential powers.

The question of his power to call all the shots appears more important to him than making some accommodation with Congress.

The president and his top aides have cast his stubborn stance in the high-flown assertion that he is protecting the principle of separation of powers for his successors.

The current divide focuses on the congressional investigation of the politically-tinged firing of eight federal prosecutors and Bush’s refusal to allow his top aides, including senior adviser Karl Rove, to testify publicly and under oath in the inquiry.

He did offer to allow Rove and other officials, including former White House counsel Harriet Miers to be interviewed privately but not under oath by lawmakers and without transcripts of the interviews.

Day after day administration spokesmen have been asserting Bush’s "confidence" in beleaguered Attorney General Alberto Gonzales who has made conflicting statements on the firing of the federal attorneys.

It’s doubtful that Gonzales or Bush can withstand the growing clamor for the nation’s chief law enforcement officer to step down, reluctant as Bush is to give up his good friend.

A House subcommittee has issued subpoenas which could lead to a confrontation in the courts.

Former White House press secretary Ari Fleischer told The New York Times that Bush will go to the mat on this issue.

Fleisher said Bush is willing "to lose the politics of things, because he does have a longer view of the powers of the presidency and what it takes to protect them."

At a news conference last week, Bush threw down the gauntlet to Democrats, declaring he was not going to let them spend the rest of his term "dragging White House members up there to score political points, or put the klieg lights on."

He said the Democrats were seeking "show trials."

White House press secretary Tony Snow told reporters the aim was to avoid "a circus."

Snow also said "we feel pretty well on the constitutional argument."

But on the question of presidential power, it all depends on where you sit and who you serve.

When he was a journalist for Fox News Sunday in 1998, Snow was critical of President Bill Clinton’s claim of executive privilege.

Taken to the extreme, Clinton’s expansive definition would make it impossible to hold a president accountable for anything, Snow contended.

Giving the president that kind of power would be, in effect, giving him "a constitutional right to cover up."

But that was then.

Vice President Dick Cheney reportedly has been disturbed over what he sees is the erosion of presidential powers since the Watergate scandal and has urged Bush to take a stronger stand against what Cheney sees as congressional intrusions into the executive branch.

This is the same vice president who persuaded the U.S. Supreme Court to allow the White House to conceal the names of the members of his energy task force.

Presidential power was overruled by the high bench in July, 1974, when President Nixon was ordered to turn over some audio tapes of his White House conversations, including the "smoking gun" tape of June 23, 1972, that revealing the Watergate cover up.

Associate Senate Historian Donald Ritchie says there is a "lot of gray area" in the Constitution’s separation of powers doctrine. The framers of the Constitution seem to have set up an "invitation to a struggle" between the branches of government, Ritchie says.

During his tenure, Bush has blatantly expanded what he considers presidential prerogatives. Even as he signed new legislation, he issued more than 700 statements rejecting some provisions of the very bills he has signed, including the legislation banning torture.

He also asserted authority to order wiretapping without court warrants in violation of the law.

Bush is finding his imperial grab for power was a lot easier when the GOP was King of the Hill.