The Senate wrapped up its business with unusual dispatch on Tuesday. Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, the designated presiding officer, called the chamber to order. "Under the previous order, the Senate stands in recess until Friday," he said. He banged the gavel, and then he left. It took 22 seconds.
But what the session lacked in depth, it made up for in political purpose. By keeping the Senate in session, however briefly, Democrats prevent President Bush from making high-level appointments while Congress is in recess, thus avoiding the process of Senate confirmation.
"We're preserving the Constitution," Senator Webb said, after the pro-forma session. "It's appropriate given how [the Bush administration] is abusing the confirmation process."
From confirmations to annual spending bills and war funding, Mr. Bush and the Democratic-controlled Congress are at odds – with both sides settling into procedural trench warfare. Democrats are playing defense since they lack the 60 votes to prevent a Senate filibuster or the two-thirds in both chambers needed to overturn a presidential veto.
A pro-forma session to block recess appointments is a new tactic for lawmakers. Since the late 1980s, party leaders have talked about the possibility of using such sessions to stop recess appointments as well as pocket vetoes, which allow the president to keep a bill unsigned until the legislative session is over. But this week marks the first time it's been carried out.
"It's one of those small things that can be instantly effective," says Thomas Mann, senior fellow at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "It also reflects the utter lack of trust that Democrats have vis-à-vis the president and the belief that he will exploit every opportunity provided him."
The White House wants the Senate to take up some 200 executive branch and judicial nominations, including those for two Cabinet secretaries, three members of the Federal Reserve, and the US surgeon general.
Democrats worry that Bush may use the two-week Thanksgiving break to fill some of them, especially with people who are controversial. One is James Holsinger, who is being considered for surgeon general and has drawn criticism for a 1991 paper on the "pathophysiology of male homosexuality."
Bush's previous recess appointments include John Bolton as UN ambassador and Judges Charles Pickering and William Pryor to the US Court of Appeals. With 165 recess appointments, President Bush ranks No. 4, behind Presidents Reagan, Truman, and Eisenhower. President Clinton made 140 recess appointments, according to the US Senate Historical Office.
Senate majority leader Harry Reid says Bush is stalling on nominating Democrats for bipartisan oversight agencies.
"The Senate will be coming in for pro-forma sessions during the Thanksgiving holiday to prevent recess appointments. My hope is that this will prompt the president to see that it is our mutual interests for the nominations process to get back on track," said Senator Reid.
On Tuesday, leaders on the House Appropriations Committee stepped up the war of words with the White House – and fellow Democrats in the Senate – over stalled Iraq war funding. The Pentagon says that Bush's $196.4 billion request is needed by January to avoid the shutdown of US bases and some 100,000 layoffs.
"Rather than working with Congress on a responsible war-spending package, this administration is executing a plan to plunder from these essential base budget accounts in order to fund a continuation of the president's misguided war," said Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the House Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, in a press briefing.
He and Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D) of Wisconsin say that they will not move another war-funding bill this year, unless it includes three conditions: a requirement that all troops deployed into combat be fully trained and equipped, a ban on torture, and a goal of getting out of a combat role in Iraq by December 2008. President Bush threatens to veto any bill that includes conditions that restrict the Pentagon and commander in chief.
Before the Thanksgiving nonrecess, the Senate rejected two war-funding bills. The Democratic version, which also passed the House, provided $50 billion toward Bush's $196.4 billion request, but with a "goal" of completing a transition out of a combat role in Iraq by December 2008. It fell seven votes short of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. A GOP version, which provided $70 billion without a timetable for withdrawal, failed 45 to 53.
In response, Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii, who chairs the Defense appropriations subcommittee, said they would work on a version of the bill that is less restrictive.
Nearly two months into the new fiscal year, Democrats have passed only two of 12 annual spending bills. Last week, the House failed to override a presidential veto of the biggest domestic spending measure, the Labor, Health and Human Services and Education bill totaling $606 billion. The White House threatens vetoes on all but one of the remaining bills unless Democrats meet his budget limit.
"Democrats face a tough situation: a Republican president who was just unwilling to compromise on many policies, even if it meant plummeting popular ratings, and a very effective and disciplined Republican minority," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in Princeton, N.J.