Richard Reeves

The Noisy Death of Bipartisanship

WASHINGTON -- President Bush has kept his promise to change the partisan tone of the great Washington debate. He's done that by eliminating debate.

After 100 days and all that, the sound of "bipartisanship" is almost gone from the land. If the word itself is heard, then somebody has been away for a while. The sounds of the election are gone, too -- but only temporarily -- as a Republican White House and Congress have tried to silently take the power they believe is theirs by electoral right. The president and Republican leaders have sometimes compromised a bit under pressure, but not very often.

The Republicans are determined to use as much power as possible as soon as possible. Take the appointment of ambassadors. The bipartisan way is to appoint professionals. The partisan way is to appoint your friends and contributors, and then allow the professionals to show them, on a map, where the country is and wish them luck.

Let's compare the first wave of Bush appointees with those of that well-known bipartisan, Bill Clinton. Of President Bush's first 27 ambassadorial nominees, according to USA Today, 22 have been personal friends or important Republican contributors and only five have been Foreign Service Officers. In his first 100 days, President Clinton had appointed 23 ambassadors and all but two were FSOs, career diplomats.

Bush's nominee as ambassador to Great Britain, for instance, is William Farish, a Kentucky horse breeder, who managed the finances of his father, George H.W. Bush, and donated more than $140,000 to Bush the younger's campaign. The nominee for Ireland, Richard Egan, gave the Bush campaign more than $490,000. Charles Heimbold Jr. gave the campaign more than $350,000; he's getting Sweden. And so it goes.

The White House comment by spokesman Ari Fleischer is: "For foreign nations, it is an asset to have an ambassador who has a close relationship with the president himself."

Right. Makes you wonder why we even bother to train diplomats. But Foreign Service Officers, especially those who are non-political, or bipartisan, have little clout in this town, so the tone is quiet indeed.

Federal judges are another matter. Washington is about to explode on that one. Bush's first district court nominees are expected to be announced soon. But the Democrats have already made it clear they are prepared to fight them one by one, or not allow the Senate to confirm any of them. Already the Democrats, who have enough Senate votes to block confirmation votes, have begun the coming battle by holding up the two Bush Justice Department nominees, Theodore Olson as solicitor general and Larry Thompson as deputy attorney general. They are making a point.

The point is an old tradition of "senatorial courtesy." That right, which goes back to the presidency of George Washington, is not in the law but has often been honored by custom. Individual senators, often acting in private, have generally exercised a veto over the appointment of judges from their own states. Republicans, including Senate Judiciary Chairman Orrin Hatch of Utah, would love to politely forget about that courtesy, just as Democrats often wanted to do when they had the majority in the upper house.

Hatch has a tough case to make, because when Clinton was president, the Utah senator sent to all other members of the Senate a blue slip announcing each White House nomination. The blue paper said: "No further proceedings on this nominee will be scheduled until both blue slips have been returned by the nominee's home-state senators."

The fight over the appointment and confirmation of lifetime judges is obviously a very serious point for both parties, with Democrats routinely accusing the Republicans of trying to stack federal courts with conservative ideologues, as Republicans accused Clinton of trying to fill the bench with liberals. But the fight and emotions will be on a much more intense level this time around because of the role the lifetime justices of the Supreme Court played in making George W. Bush president.

Judicial nominations now will be considered on PST -- not Pacific Standard Time, but on the Democrats' Payback Standard Time. As far as the losers of last year's court battles on election counts and recounts are concerned, all federal courts can now be considered political battlegrounds. The partisan fight is about to be resumed, quite noisily.

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