Last month, Democratic Sens. Charles Schumer of New York and Dianne Feinstein of California joined Republicans to ensure Michael Mukasey’s confirmation as Attorney General, even though he refused to acknowledge that the simulated drowning of waterboarding was torture.

Senate Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada helped the Bush administration, too, by rushing a floor vote on Mukasey before rank-and-file Democrats could get organized and push for a filibuster.

To show thanks, Mukasey now is slapping the Democratic-controlled Congress in the face by demanding it back off any oversight investigations into how and why the CIA in late 2005 destroyed videotapes of the waterboarding of al-Qaeda suspects.

Mukasey is pressing the House Intelligence Committee to shelve its investigation into the videotape destruction and is refusing to turn over information to other congressional committees. He claims that to do so would interfere with his own investigation of what appears to be criminality that his Justice Department may have sanctioned.

And, to add insult to the stonewalling, Mukasey justified his refusal to provide information to Congress by citing his promise during his confirmation hearing that he would “ensure that politics plays no role in cases brought by the Department of Justice.”

In other words, Mukasey is arguing that congressional oversight of possible criminal wrongdoing by President George W. Bush and other senior administration officials represents “politics” – and that the only legitimate investigation of Bush’s Executive Branch is one carried out by Bush’s Executive Branch.

Some senior Democrats objected to Mukasey’s actions, though mostly in muted tones.

Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, expressed disappointment and restated that his panel “needs to fully understand whether the government used cruel interrogation techniques and torture, contrary to our basic values.”

Rep. Silvestre Reyes, D-Texas, chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, and Rep. Peter Hoekstra of Michigan, the ranking Republican, issued a joint statement saying they were “stunned” by Mukasey’s decisions.

“There is no basis upon which the Attorney General can stand in the way of our work,” Reyes and Hoekstra said.

What Will Congress Do?

But it’s less clear what Congress can – or will – do.

Over the past year, since Democrats won control of both houses, Bush has bested them time and again, with the Democrats often surrendering their most promising opportunities for pressuring the administration to make concessions.

In line with that pattern, Schumer and Feinstein broke with other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee and joined with Republicans in November 2007 to clear Mukasey’s confirmation. They did so despite Mukasey’s adamant refusal to designate the centuries-old tactic of waterboarding as torture.

Furious rank-and-file Democrats argued that Mukasey’s equivocation on torture should have disqualified him to be the nation’s chief law-enforcement officer, since torture violates domestic law, international law and the U.S. Constitution with its ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.”

They also noted that Mukasey embraced the Bush administration’s view of an all-powerful executive and, as a federal judge, had endorsed indefinite incarceration of hundreds of Muslims on phony material witness warrants after the 9/11 attacks.

Ironically, the post-9/11 round-up of Arab cab drivers, pizza delivery men and students came as the Bush administration was granting special permission for rich Saudis, including members of Osama bin Laden’s family, to flee the United States after only cursory FBI questioning.

The arresting of the “usual suspects” – while the well-connected who actually might know something were whisked away – was perhaps the first signal of how Bush’s “war on terror” would proceed, draconian actions that create the appearance of a tough crackdown when the reality is entirely different.

Bush made clear, too, that he was prepared to say anything, no matter how transparently false, to fend off public oversight.

For instance, he has said repeatedly that his administration doesn’t “torture” although U.S. intelligence operatives have acknowledged subjecting terror suspects to waterboarding, which has been considered torture since the days of the Inquisition.

Waterboarding involves strapping a person to a board tilted so the head is lower than the feet, covering the face with cellophane and pouring water over it to create the sensation of drowning.

Bush’s semantic defense of his administration – claiming that whatever he approved was not torture – made Mukasey’s word games to the Senate Judiciary Committee necessary. If Mukasey agreed that waterboarding was torture, he would have had little choice but to mount criminal investigations of Bush and other senior officials.

So, it should come as no surprise now that Mukasey is trying to fend off any independent investigation of Bush’s possible criminal exposure, while twisting words and logic again – this time, by defining outside inquiries as playing “politics” and insisting that his internal investigation will be impartial.

Democratic Failure

Schumer and Feinstein claim they voted for Mukasey in November because he was an improvement over Alberto Gonzales, who helped establish the framework for Bush’s torture policies both as White House counsel and Attorney General.

Nevertheless, the failure to force clear answers on torture from Mukasey represented another moment when the Democrats abandoned a pressure point that might have won them some concessions – or at least some straight talk – from the administration.

That has been the Democrats' pattern dating back to the November 2006 elections when they followed up their stunning victories by reverting to their timid practices of taking Bush at his word and avoiding aggressive oversight.

The Democrats not only failed to mount a sustained challenge to Bush’s policies, they avoided any systematic hearings that would educate the American public about why Bush’s presidency has represented such an extraordinary threat to the Republic. [For details, see Consortiumnews.com’s “Democrats’ Year of Living Fecklessly.”]

In exchange for their repeated surrenders, the Democrats have gotten nothing from Bush and the Republicans, other than their contempt.

As the first session under the new Democratic majority nears an end this month, Bush is riding roughshod over the Democrats on a wide range of issues. He insists that they sign off on his budget figures; he demands another blank check for the Iraq War; and his Attorney General is obstructing congressional oversight of the torture scandal.

Yet, the Democrats are in a far worse position today to stand up to Bush than they were a year ago. Then, they had a majority of the American people behind them, hoping that the Democrats would protect the nation from Bush’s executive power grab and would bring Bush’s disastrous Iraq War to an end.

Today, only a tiny fraction of Americans believes that the congressional Democrats will do much more than run up the white flag, once again.

Robert Parry broke many of the Iran-Contra stories in the 1980s for the Associated Press and Newsweek. His latest book, Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush, was written with two of his sons, Sam and Nat, and can be ordered at neckdeepbook.com. His two previous books, Secrecy & Privilege: The Rise of the Bush Dynasty from Watergate to Iraq and Lost History: Contras, Cocaine, the Press & 'Project Truth' are also available there. Or go to Amazon.com.

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