Specter's Uneasy Relationship With White House Is Revealed in a Letter to Cheney
By Carl Hulse and Jim Rutenberg
The New York Times
Thursday 08 June 2006
Washington - A senior Republican lawmaker went public on Wednesday about his often tense and complicated relationship with the Bush White House in a remarkable display of the strains within the party.
The lawmaker, Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, accused Vice President Dick Cheney of meddling behind his back in the committee's business, bringing into the open a conflict that has simmered for months.
In a letter to Mr. Cheney that the senator released to the news media, Mr. Specter said the vice president had cut him out of discussions with all the other Republicans on his own committee about oversight of the administration's eavesdropping programs, a subject on which Mr. Specter has often been at odds with the White House.
The trigger for Mr. Specter's anger was a deal made by Mr. Cheney with the other Republicans on the committee to block testimony from phone companies that reportedly cooperated in providing call records to the National Security Agency.
Mr. Specter, who had been considering issuing subpoenas to compel telephone company executives to testify, learned of Mr. Cheney's actions only when he went into a closed meeting of the committee's Republicans on Tuesday afternoon, shortly after encountering the vice president at a weekly luncheon of all Senate Republicans.
Mr. Specter's tone in the letter was restrained, but he made no effort to hide his displeasure at having been outmaneuvered and, in his view, undermined, by Mr. Cheney.
"I was surprised, to say the least, that you sought to influence, really determine, the action of the committee without calling me first, or at least calling me at some point," Mr. Specter wrote. "This was especially perplexing since we both attended the Republican senators caucus lunch yesterday and I walked directly in front of you on at least two occasions en route from the buffet to my table."
A spokeswoman for Mr. Cheney, Lea Anne McBride, said Wednesday night that the vice president "has not had an opportunity to study" the letter.
"We're going to continue to work with members, listening to their legislative ideas," Ms. McBride said, although she added that it was "not necessary to have legislation to carry out the terrorist surveillance program."
She had no comment on the assertion that Mr. Cheney had worked behind the chairman's back.
Mr. Specter's evident frustration underscored the growing unease on Capitol Hill, among some Republicans as well as many Democrats, over the administration's efforts to exert executive power. At the same time, the White House has been trying to repair its relations with Congress.
One Republican with close ties to the administration, who was granted anonymity to discuss the thinking at the White House, said Mr. Specter had been increasingly nettlesome to the administration with his persistent criticism, especially of the surveillance programs.
Noting that the White House was ultimately pleased with Mr. Specter's help in securing the confirmations of Mr. Bush's Supreme Court nominees, this Republican said, "All of that good will he's built up has really been dissipated because he keeps smacking them around."
A senior White House official, granted anonymity to discuss internal deliberations, said the president's chief of staff, Joshua B. Bolten, had reached out to Mr. Specter on Friday to press the administration's case for how to handle the phone companies.
The official described the conversation as "cordial but not productive."
"That's when we started reaching out to other members," the official said. "It was not out of disrespect."
The official went on, "The chairman's position is well known, and he knows our position, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't work with other members who may be more open to our position."
Mr. Specter has been the leading Republican voice raising questions about the legal underpinnings of the surveillance programs.
In his letter, Mr. Specter told Mr. Cheney that events were unfolding in a "context where the administration is continuing warrantless wiretaps in violation of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act and is preventing the Senate Judiciary Committee from carrying out its constitutional responsibility for Congressional oversight."
Mr. Cheney, by contrast, has led the White House's effort to defend the surveillance programs on legal and national security grounds.
The vice president has also been the primary force behind the administration's efforts to expand executive power in a wide variety of areas, a stance that has at times put him in direct conflict with Mr. Specter.
When Mr. Specter faced a difficult primary challenge in 2004, Mr. Bush sided with Mr. Specter, giving him vital political support.
In an interview, Mr. Specter described his relationship with Mr. Cheney as generally friendly and cordial. But he was clearly put out by the vice president's handling of the issue and his failure to pull Mr. Specter aside as he made several trips to the buffet for tuna salad and hard-boiled egg, salad dressing and fruit.
"He can talk to anybody he wants to," Mr. Specter said. "I think as a matter of basic protocol he ought not to exclude the chairman."