A Democratic-proposed "truth commission" to investigate the Bush administration is generating more partisanship in a Congress already filled with it.
Republicans are almost universally opposed, and President Barack Obama doesn’t appear to be enthralled with the idea either, saying at his first prime-time news conference he would consider the proposal but wants to look forward.
Sponsors said the commission could investigate who — in President George W. Bush’s inner circle — drove the harsh interrogations and warrantless surveillance programs, and probe White House involvement in politically motivated hirings and firings in Bush’s Justice Department.
There is more to learn, since the Bush administration has kept many documents on these subjects secret and ordered three former White House officials not to testify before Congress. But Obama’s Justice Department also is resisting pressure to release those documents.
If Democrats in Congress proceed, it would be one more bruising political debate in a Congress that’s had plenty of them since convening last month.
Party splits dominated debates over an economic stimulus and equal pay for women, and were prominent in the confirmations of Attorney General Eric Holder and Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, the decision by former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle to pull his nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary, and a health insurance bill to cover more children.
The most outspoken champions of a commission to investigate the Bush administration are Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., and Rep. John Conyers, D-Mich., chairmen of the Senate and House Judiciary committees. Both lawmakers plan to proceed, despite Obama’s comment.
"Investigations are not a matter of payback or political revenge," said Conyers. "It is our responsibility to examine what has occurred and to set an appropriate baseline of conduct for future administrations."
There’s "an oversight responsibility that has to be carried out," Leahy said, adding that he wants to discuss the idea further with Obama.
Obama stopped short of quashing the idea, saying he would look at Leahy’s proposal.
"Nobody’s above the law and if there are clear instances of wrongdoing, then people should be prosecuted just like any ordinary citizen," he said. "But … generally speaking, I’m more interested in looking forward than I am in looking back."
Leahy, who came up with the "truth commission" label, and Conyers, who already introduced a bill for a "blue ribbon" panel, contended an investigative body outside Congress would take the investigation away from politics. Republicans countered it would do exactly the opposite — and they have the votes to kill it in the Senate with a filibuster.
Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the senior Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, asked why Democrats need a commission to get information from a Justice Department now run by their own party.
"You just have to walk in and ask where the file cabinets are," Specter said in an interview.
Specter is anything but a doctrinaire Republican. He was one of three Senate Republicans who originally supported the Democratic economic stimulus plan. He supported Holder’s confirmation. He voted for the Democratic children’s health care bill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, a South Carolina Republican who also voted for Holder, called the "truth commission" suggestion "this left-driven desire to prosecute people" over Bush’s anti-terrorism policies.
Another Republican, Sen. John Cornyn of Texas, said the proposal makes Democrats vulnerable to allegations that they’re piling on after already spending years investigating the administration.
"This not only a bad idea, it is a diversion from the economic crisis we face," Cornyn said.
Leahy acknowledged that a commission would have to be careful in seeking immunity from prosecution for witnesses. The convictions of Oliver North, in the Iran-Contra scandal, were vacated in 1990 because witnesses in his trial might have been impermissibly affected by his immunized congressional testimony.
There’s also the danger of interfering with a special prosecutor’s criminal investigation of possible criminal wrongdoing in the firings of U.S. attorneys.
The House and Senate judiciary committees have spent several years looking into interrogation policies, warrantless surveillance and politically motivated firings of U.S. attorneys. Former Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and several of his top aides lost their jobs for allowing politics to influence department policies.