Though Vice President Cheney’s contention that he is not part of the executive branch has provided endless fodder for late-night comedians, Senate Republicans are not going to be shy about defending him from attempts to strip his office of funding, and they may end up with a Democratic ally or two as well.
As the Senate Appropriations Committee prepares today to take up the financial services and general government spending bill, Republicans on and off the panel are expected to vigorously oppose a Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) provision that prohibits funding for the Office of the Vice President until Cheney complies with an executive order issued by former President Bill Clinton and renewed by President Bush.
The executive order requires executive branch entities to report to national archivists on how they handle classified documents. Cheney’s staff originally argued that they did not have to comply with the order because the vice president’s office was not an executive branch entity given his constitutional role as president of the Senate.
Though few Republicans offered a robust defense of Cheney’s argument, many expressed concern that Durbin’s provision would set an unwelcome precedent of politicizing funding between the branches.
“Sometimes we get into these games that really aren’t worth playing. I’ve been here long enough to know not to play them,” said Sen. Larry Craig (R-Idaho), an Appropriations Committee member. “They do not benefit the stability of the institutions. There are a few things around here you don’t tread on. You let the executive branch do its thing as it relates to its operations and then they leave us alone.”
Craig added, “I think what Democrats are forgetting is that they may someday have a vice president again. … And when it does happen they’ll find out that they’ve cut the legs out from under their own vice presidential office.”
Republicans also said Durbin’s amendment smacks of political gamesmanship and will be easy to oppose.
“These are all political amendments designed to embarrass the administration, and I think they are viewed as such by most Republican Senators, which is probably why they’re not going to get any support,” said Senate Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.).
“It’s gone from being a legitimate policy dispute to being a petty punishment precedent,” said one senior Senate GOP aide. “It’s no longer about Cheney. It’s about what kind of tools are available to angry majorities.”
The aide added that Durbin, who also serves as Majority Whip, should be careful that, “If Republicans are in the majority next, do they start cutting the budget for the Whip office?”
But Durbin said the vice president doesn’t have a leg to stand on in this fight. “For the first two years as vice president, he complied with the law and then he said he was above the law — not covered by it — with some twisted argument that somehow he wasn’t part of the executive branch,” he said.
Durbin added, “If the vice president is not part of the executive branch, he shouldn’t be receiving classified information transferred within the executive branch. He can’t have it both ways, and that’s the point of the whole executive order.”
However, Durbin is in danger of losing at least one Democratic appropriator’s vote over the issue when Republicans attempt to strike the provision in the full committee today. Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said he has reservations about supporting the amendment, even though he voted for it on Tuesday during subcommittee consideration.
But despite receiving a call pleading his case from Cheney himself, Nelson criticized the White House’s stance on the issue.
“My response was, ‘Well, the White House can clarify this. … He who makes the executive order can change the executive order, modify it or even retract it,’” Nelson said. “I think that’s an easy way for them to fix it, if they’re willing to fix it. If not, I think that it ought to apply to the White House across the board.”
Still, Nelson said he is not certain he will continue to support the amendment in full committee today. Sen. Mary Landrieu (D-La.) also reportedly has expressed some reservations about the provision, even though she, too, supported it in the subcommittee.
Though they will continue to try to strip out the provision if it reaches the Senate floor, most Republicans approached on the subject laughed or rolled their eyes at Cheney’s original argument that his office inhabits a middle ground between the White House and Congress.
“I’m still waiting to figure out whether he’s executive or legislative or both, or some hybrid,” Thune said.
Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), an appropriator, also expressed confusion about Cheney’s tack, even as he defended the vice president’s ability to interpret the executive order as he wishes.
“He probably shouldn’t have made the argument at all,” Gregg said. “He should have said, ‘Hey, it’s an executive order. We can do whatever we want under executive orders.’”
Cheney has since changed his stance to one that argues he does not have to comply with the order because both he and the president are charged with enforcing it.
A White House spokesman explained to The New York Times on June 28 that “It’s not appropriate for a subordinate office [such as the National Archives] to investigate or require reporting from the enforcer of the executive order.”