That Congress is questioning the apparent political motivation behind the firing of eight U.S. attorneys by the Bush White House is a direct result of Democrats winning control of both chambers last November.
"I can tell you it is highly unlikely that there would have been a serious inquiry into this dismissal if Congress had not changed hands," Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) told me Tuesday. It would have been "swept under the rug."
House and Senate Democratic leaders are determined to haul White House political adviser Karl Rove before congressional committees, an unimaginable scenario if the Republicans were still in charge.
It's hard to imagine that the Justice Department, under a GOP-controlled Congress, would have felt compelled to release e-mails detailing the thought process behind the firings. They might have just said the White House was exercising its prerogative over appointees who serve at the pleasure of the president and that would have been that.
As it is, the Bush White House was slow to react. Probably, I surmise, because until now they never had to. So they never had to learn the damage control lessons of the Clinton White House: do a document dump to get ahead of the congressional investigative committees. Get everything out. Avoid contradictions, of which, in this firing matter, there are plenty. Since there is not one in the Bush administration, invent a Lanny Davis, the Clinton White House counsel who handled scandal.
The whole controversy may not even exist if not for pressure from the newly empowered Democratic House and Senate leaders.
House Caucus Chair Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) had the right instinct when he jumped on this when the dismissal of the first U.S. attorney surfaced in January -- Carol Lam in San Diego -- and started turning up pressure on the Bush White House, as did House Judiciary Chairman Rep. John Conyers (D-Mich.). Over on the Senate side, the matter jumped up to the A list when it became clear how many federal prosecutors were dismissed -- and how Republicans slipped language into a bill making it easier to replace them.
Former White House counsel Harriet Miers and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales in a sense got a green light to consider the firings because of what Durbin called a "minor obscure provision" in the U.S. Patriot Act reauthorization. Slipped in the measure by GOP negotiators who shut Democrats out was language that handed the attorney general new power to appoint federal prosecutors without the need for Senate confirmation. "That went unnoticed," Durbin said. "But [it] cleverly was part of the bigger strategy, we now know."
The U.S. attorney dismissals -- and how the Democratic congressional leaders reacted -- is a case study of how Congress can have an impact when it performs its oversight duties. The very threat of congressional investigations, Durbin said, was enough to force the Bush White House to react right away after the Washington Post expose about the shabby treatment at the Walter Reed medical hospital complex. Heads flew.
"That had a lot to do with the changeover in Congress," Durbin said. "They knew, [Defense] Secretary Gates on down knew, if they didn't act quickly, Congress would have. And we still have."
A battle may soon erupt over whether Rove will testify before Congress. Durbin, a member of the Judiciary Committee, said he would like to see him within three or four weeks. The Bush White House is resisting, asserting a form of executive immunity for Rove from congressional demands for testimony. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) takes the view that kind of executive privilege belongs only to a president.
The questions for Rove and others in the administration are basic, Durbin said. "How high up did this go? How far along did it go in the White House? Did it go beyond Karl Rove? How much did the president know about this, if anything?"
It's not just a matter of firing -- but who was not asked to go, as well. If and when Rove is sworn in as a witness, Durbin said it would be "reasonable" to "go beyond the eight who were dismissed" and ask about his relationship with those who were retained, whether any political pressure was put on U.S. attorneys who did not lose their jobs. Added Durbin, "What else was Karl Rove doing when it came to other activities, departments of the government?"