WASHINGTON – The House was quiet as a mouse the day after Christmas. But across the Capitol, the Senate was operating in an unusually efficient manner in its ongoing power struggle with President Bush.
A nine-second session gaveled in and out by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., prevented Bush from appointing as an assistant attorney general a nominee roundly rejected by majority Democrats. Without the pro forma session, the Senate would be technically adjourned, allowing the president to install officials without Senate confirmation.
The business of blocking Bush's recess appointments was serious. It represents an institutional standoff between Congress and the president that could repeat itself during Congress' vacations for the remainder of Bush's presidency.
In such situations, pro forma sessions also could give Bush some political cover on popular legislation he doesn't want to sign. When Congress is holding pro forma sessions and is not formally adjourned, a bill sent to a president automatically becomes law in 10 days unless he vetoes it.
That could be the fate of two bills Congress passed last week. One growing out of the Virginia Tech massacre makes it harder for people with mental illness records to buy guns. The other makes it easier for journalists and others to obtain government documents through the Freedom of Information Act.
In practice, Wednesday's pro forma process was almost comical.
"Good morning!" Webb, sporting a respectful tie and jacket, called to the floor staff assembled just for the occasion in an otherwise sleepy and chilly Capitol. One clerk congratulated Webb on being 30 seconds early, thrice the amount of time it would take to complete the Senate's work for the day.
Climbing to the president's chair, Webb took the gavel and banged it.
"The Senate will come to order," he intoned, reading from a two-line script to a floor empty of other senators but witnessed from the gallery by one reporter and about a half dozen staffers. "Under the previous order, the Senate stands in recess until Friday, December 28th, 2007 at 10 a.m."
His work done, Webb left. The floor staff reported to those in the gallery overhead that the session had lasted nine seconds.
"I didn't appoint myself ambassador to a tropical nation," Webb, a former Navy secretary, novelist and TV journalist, quipped to a reporter afterwards.
Before Congress left last week, Democrats scheduled 11 pro forma sessions to fill the void until the Senate returns to regular session on Jan. 22. The purpose was to stop Bush from using the constitutional power presidents hold under the Constitution to bypass Senate confirmation and unilaterally install his nominees in office when Congress is adjourned.
Democrats wanted to block one such recess appointment in particular: Steven Bradbury, acting chief of the Justice Department's Office of Legislative Counsel. Bush nominated Bradbury for the job and asked the Senate to remove the "acting" in his title.
Democrats would have none of it, complaining Bradbury had signed two secret memos in 2005 saying it was OK for the CIA to use harsh interrogation techniques — some call it torture — on terrorism detainees.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Bush refused to rule out appointing Bradbury to the job if the Senate formally adjourned. So, Reid decided to keep the Senate in session with pro forma meetings every two or three days.