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Rice, Gonzales Votes High on Hill Agenda This Week

Democrats are still bristling at Republican suggestions that they’re holding up President Bush’s nominations, particularly that of Condoleezza Rice to be secretary of State.

“Surely this democracy of ours can handle a couple of hours of debate about [Rice] on the Senate floor,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). [IMGCAP(1)]

In fact, the mere request for nine hours of floor debate on Rice — with a vote scheduled on Wednesday — rankled Republicans, who had hoped to give Bush more than just new secretaries of Education and Agriculture as an Inauguration Day offering.

“If this is the kind of comity we can expect for the rest of the session, we are not getting off to a good start,” Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) told The New York Times last week. “It is churlish.”

Churlish or not, Manley said Reid will not be asking Senate Democrats to oppose Rice as a show of force, as his predecessor Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) did when Bush nominated former Sen. John Ashcroft (R-Mo.) to be attorney general in 2001. At the time, Democrats declined to filibuster Ashcroft’s controversial nomination, despite having more than the 40 votes necessary to block him.

But the Democratic jury is still out on whether to follow the Ashcroft model when Bush’s newest pick for attorney general — current White House Counsel and former Texas Supreme Court Judge Alberto Gonzales — comes to the floor, possibly next week.

“There’s increasing concern amongst a lot of Democrats about Judge Gonzales,” said Manley, who added Gonzales will likely see “more opposition” on the floor from Democrats than Rice will.

Reid has yet to decide, or even consult with the Democratic Caucus, on whether Members should band together against Gonzales, whom many Democrats have criticized for being the author of several Bush administration memos that appear to endorse the use of torture when questioning terrorism detainees.

But suffice to say that Democrats are probably going to want at least nine hours of floor debate or maybe more to scrutinize Gonzales’ nomination.

“Accountability is the issue hanging over this nomination — accountability about some of the most important issues facing the nation,” said David Carle, spokesman for Senate Judiciary ranking member Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). “When the Gonzales nomination reaches the Senate floor, it is appropriate to have a straightforward and honest debate before the Senate votes. The Constitution makes clear that the Senate is supposed to be more than just a rubber stamp.”

But Republicans are having none of it.

“This is yet another page out of the Democratic obstructionist play book, where they obstruct and obstruct and obstruct,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide.

Of course, even if Democrats try to make Gonzales’ nomination a largely party-line vote, getting more than the 40 votes needed to impress Republicans with their ability to filibuster may be too much to hope for this time around. Democrats control only 45 seats, compared to the 50 they had in 2001.

In the meantime, Senate Judiciary Democrats will get their first crack at voting against Gonzales on Wednesday, when the full committee considers his nomination. Republicans on the panel are likely to vote in unison for him, and he may attract a few Democrats too.

But first things first: Rice’s confrontational confirmation hearings last week have set the stage for a handful of Democrats to go for the rhetorical jugular this week, even if a majority of the Caucus stands ready to confirm her.

For example, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) has a least an hour of floor time set aside to talk about Rice, and presumably how she is one of the architects of what Byrd sees as Bush’s flawed foreign policy and ill-conceived war with Iraq.

Of course, Byrd spokesman Tom Gavin noted that Byrd has yet to say whether he will vote against Rice’s nomination.

Meanwhile, Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) — whose testy exchange with Rice during last week’s Foreign Relations hearing has already inspired a “Saturday Night Live” skit — is expected to be a chief floor critic as well.

“She will not support the nomination on the floor,” said Boxer spokesman David Sandretti. “She will speak at length about it.”

Last week, Boxer, along with former Democratic presidential nominee Sen. John Kerry (Mass.), repeatedly questioned whether Rice was being candid about the intelligence Rice and others in the Bush administration used to help justify the war in Iraq, including the belief that then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Rice responded at the hearing that Boxer was “impugning” her integrity.

That’s what Republicans say really irks them. “It’s not just the delay in the vote [on Rice], but also the unprofessionalism with which Senator Boxer and Senator Kerry treated her in committee,” said the Senate GOP leadership aide. “It’s sour grapes. There’s no question about it.”

With all the Republican grumbling about renewed obstructionist tactics by Senate Democrats, what’s not getting a lot of ink is that most of Bush’s nominees are actually speeding through toward confirmation unscathed.

Case in point: Michael Leavitt’s nomination to be secretary of Health and Human Services. Despite being the public face of the Bush administration’s controversial environmental policies since October 2003, Leavitt faced scant questioning about his decisions as administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Leavitt may be confirmed without much debate on the Senate floor this week.

Indeed, Democrats have not expressed serious reservations about other nominees, such as Samuel Bodman to be secretary of Energy and Mike Johanns to be secretary of Agriculture. The Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee will likely vote on Bodman’s nomination on Wednesday, according to a committee spokeswoman.

Johanns, along with Education secretary nominee Margaret Spellings, was confirmed last Thursday by voice vote. Commerce secretary nominee Carlos Gutierrez was expected to receive similar approval last night.

Former Republican National Committee Chairman Jim Nicholson also has raised few eyebrows as the nominee to take over the Veterans’ Affairs Department. The Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee approved his nomination yesterday amid little fanfare.

The Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee has yet to hold a hearing on U.S. Appeals Court Judge Michael Chertoff’s nomination to be Homeland Security secretary.

Chertoff is likely to face questions about allegations of racial profiling in the roundup of hundreds of immigrants unrelated to terrorism in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. At the time, he was the director of the Justice Department’s Criminal Division, which oversaw the roundup.