White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel rushed to the Capitol in the evening to personally deliver this message after the talks began to unravel. The president participated via the speaker on Emanuel's cell phone, as senators gathered around in the first floor offices of the Senate Appropriations Committee. And Chairman Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii) later read aloud a letter from Obama pledging to use every "legal and administrative remedy" available to prevent the disclosure of the pictures.
The underlying bill is vital to Obama’s foreign policy agenda as well as major domestic needs such as advanced funding to cope with the threat of pandemic flu next winter. But the administration has stumbled repeatedly and more than ever has found itself whipsawed by not just Republicans but the Democratic left.
Central to Thursday’s drama was a Senate amendment adopted with little debate but designed to frustrate efforts by the American Civil Liberties Union in federal courts to force the release of the photos.
Democratic leaders had already decided that the provision should be dropped because of liberal opposition to any tampering with the Freedom of Information Act. And House negotiators upheld this position on a 5-3 vote.
But after caucusing with his colleagues, Inouye suddenly was hesitant to go forward when faced with a motion by Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, insisting that the Senate hold firm.
The talks abruptly recessed, prompting Emanuel’s arrival soon after. And when they reconvened, Inouye came armed with the president’s letter—and solid Democratic votes to kill McConnell’s motion.
Addressed to Inouye and House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D., Wis.), the letter was significant at two levels. First, it marked the clearest statement yet by the White House recognizing the political problems posed by the Senate amendment—and the threat to the bill. Second, Obama left open the option that he could use his executive power to classify the photos as secret if things go badly for him in the courts.
In the letter, Obama begins by restating his opposition to the release of the photos, saying it won’t add “any additional benefit to our understanding of what happened in the past and the most direct consequence of releasing them would be to further inflame anti-American opinion and to put our troops in greater danger.”
He goes on to cite a favorable ruling from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals — which also happened to come Thursday—that will give the administration time to go next to the U.S. Supreme Court. And the president pledges to “take every legal and administrative remedy available to me” to ensure the detainee photos are not released.
In fact, prior to the letter, Republicans and an increasing number of Democrats were already urging Obama to use his executive powers to designate the photos as classified and therefore protected under secrecy laws.
Leading the charge was Obama’s old rival, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who went to the Senate floor Thursday, saying it was time for the president to “stand up to the left wing in his party.” But no less than Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) later told reporters flatly: “The pictures are not going to be released,” regardless of what is in or out of the war funding bill.
Prior to Emanuel’s arrival, Inouye refused comment on any recommendations he has made to the administration but signaled that he also would welcome the president doing more to protect the photos. “There are ony a few options, and the White House has to decide,” said one leadership aide.
In many respects, the dicey politics run back to the administration’s insistence that the same war funding bill be used to carry billions in new financing for the International Monetary Fund. Obama personally pledged the funding at an international meeting in April, but it has turned into a political nightmare for his Democratic allies, given the political crosscurrents in the House.
Republicans have threatened to withhold their votes for the final package, which now includes the IMF funding. And this means Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) has had to try to win back some of the 51 anti-war Democrats who opposed the war funding when it first passed the House in May.
While the White House hung back on the sidelines, House leaders concluded long ago that it was imperative to drop the Senate amendment, which was seen by many liberals as an intrusion on the Freedom of Information Act.
Underlying the whole debate is a real anxiety among many Democrats over Obama’s increased military commitment to Afghanistan and a new U.S. partnership with its neighbor Pakistan. Leftwing bloggers even boasted that convergence of events could be a chance to kill the war funding outright.
This anxiety was evident again Thursday in House debate on a parallel Foreign Affairs bill demanding that the administration come forward this summer with a more comprehensive plan for the long-term “security and stability” of Pakistan while also demanding greater accountability from Islamabad as well.
“We appreciate the urgency of the situation in Pakistan and the need for appropriate flexibility,” said House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Howard Berman (D-Calif.). “We are simply asking Pakistan to follow through with the commitments it has already made. If the president is unable to make these determinations, then we should be asking ourselves much deeper questions about what we really hope to achieve in Pakistan.”
Indeed, the level of assistance is substantial. The combined military and economic aid in the package for Afghanistan is close to $5 billion, and Pakistan’s portion could exceed $3 billion, counting funds it also receives as a coalition partner facilitating U.S. operations in Afghanistan.
Most striking is the level of funds to begin a greatly expanded U.S. role in the training and equipping of Pakistani troops who will be asked to carry out more counterinsurgency operations against Taliban forces operating in their country and along the border with Afghanistan. This aid will move first through the Department of Defense but later the State Department in two installments, totaling $1.1 billion by Oct. 1.
Like the detainee photos, Obama has been less sure footed in dealing with his plans to close the U.S. detention facility at Guantanamo. This is a signature issue for the administration, but the bill provides none of the money sought by Obama to carry out the closing. And the final language would bar the transfer of any prisoners into the U.S. except for the purposes of prosecution and only after a detailed plan explaining the cost, legal rationale and risks has been provided to Congress.
Among domestic issues, a total of $7.65 billion is provided to cope with the threat of the H1N1 flu recurring. Included in this total is $5.8 billion that will be available as an emergency contingency to be used as needed supplemental federal stockpiles and develop and administer vaccines. The administration hopes this may help pick up votes as well in states where the flu has been most prevalent.
A last and controversial addition to the package is a $1 billion down payment toward a new “cash for clunkers” initiative designed to encourage consumers buy for newer, more efficient cars and light trucks. The rebates run from $3500 to $4500 depending on the relative energy savings, but even Democrat are suspect that it has become more of a bailout for auto dealers.
In fact, environmentalists allied with Sens. Dianne Feinstein (D., Cal.) and Susan Collins (R., Maine) had proposed an alternative bill this year that insisted that the car owner at least move up 7 miles-per-gallon to qualify and achieve a 13 miles-per-gallon improvement to get the full rebate.
The agreement Thursday shoots lower, with a threshold of just 4 miles-per-gallon for example. And a lower income family that buys a used car—however more efficient--would not qualify.
New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, the ranking Republican on the Senate Budget Committee, made a vain attempt to strike the whole funding and won three Democratic votes, including Feinstein. But Sen. George Voinovich (R., Ohio) backed the initiative, and Gregg lost 17-13.
Clearly relieved after a roller-coaster day, Inouye looked across to Obey: “May I say we adjourn smiling,” Inouye said.