It’s not often that Karl Rove gets outflanked, but it sure seems to have happened Tuesday. Rove and his colleagues had the president off on his Change the Subject Tour: On Monday, the subject-that-was-not-Plamegate was Sam Alito; on Tuesday, it was supposed to have been the president’s plan to fight bird flu from Asia. But Harry Reid and a band of merry Democrats changed all that with the invocation of an obscure Senate rule, swinging media coverage right back to Scooter Libby and the Iraq war more generally and leaving Bill Frist looking like a whiner in the process.
At the end of a long speech in which he said that George W. Bush’s presidency has him worried about his grandchildren, Reid invoked Senate Rule 21 yesterday and moved the Senate into a closed session to push for progress on the long-delayed Senate Intelligence Committee investigation into the administration’s use of intelligence to justify the “intractable” war in Iraq. The Republicans squealed — “This is an affront to me personally,” Frist said — but they also caved.
Not so long ago, this would have played out so differently. The Democrats would have been too timid to try what Frist called a “stunt.” And if they had, the Republicans would have felt entitled to smack it down. The Republicans of old — and by “old” here, we mean earlier this year — would have ended the closed session with a simple majority vote and told Democrats that they’d face some sort of parliamentary retaliation if they tried to pull anything like it again. Instead, the Republicans agreed with the Democrats to assign six members of the Intelligence Committee the job of reporting back to the Senate in two weeks on plans to complete the investigation into the administration’s intelligence work.
Maybe that’s just a cover for more Republican delays. But even if it is, it’s something: Weakened by the failings of the president and confronted by Democrats playing something like hardball, Republican senators felt a need to look like they were being responsive even as their leaders howled in protest. That doesn’t change the world: Bush is still the president, and the Republicans still control the House, the Senate and the Supreme Court. But for an afternoon, at least, the TV talking heads kept talking about Valerie Plame and Iraq and not about whatever it was that the president and his political advisor had planned for them. For one day of November, you can put the “W” next to Harry Reid’s name.