Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- When President Bush in his State of the Union address Tuesday night called for a bipartisan "special advisory council" of congressional leaders on the war against terrorism, he had in his pocket a rude rejection from Democratic leaders. Thank you very much, said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, but no thank you.

Three days earlier, Reid and Pelosi wrote a letter to the president, turning down his offer (contained in his Jan. 10 speech on Iraq) to establish a council consisting of Democratic chairmen and Republican ranking members of the relevant committees. "We believe that Congress already has bipartisan structures in place," they said, adding: "We look forward to working with you within existing structures."

That could be the most overt snub of a presidential overture since Abraham Lincoln was told that Gen. George B. McClellan had retired for the night and could not see the president. Courtesy aside, it shows that the self-confident Democratic leadership is uninterested in being cut into potentially disastrous outcomes in Iraq. It wants to function as a coordinate branch of government, not as friendly colleagues in the spirit of bipartisanship. Pelosi and several Democratic chairmen are leaving for Iraq on Friday.

In his Jan. 10 speech on Iraq, Bush called for a "new, bipartisan working group that will help us come together across party lines to win the war on terror." That prompted the Pelosi-Reid letter of Jan. 19, rejecting the offer.

Bush made a mistake on Jan. 10 in attributing the idea to Sen. Joe Lieberman, who as the Senate's only self-identified "Independent Democrat" is estranged from his colleagues who are unmodified Democrats. These former comrades are not charmed by the prospect of Lieberman pontificating as a member of the "working group" by virtue of being chairman of the Senate Homeland Security Committee.

But Lieberman was not the reason for the speaker and majority leader's rebuff. The Democratic leadership is beyond consultation on Iraq, as demonstrated by the selection of Sen. Jim Webb to deliver the party's response to the president Tuesday night. Webb, whose unexpected election from Virginia last year gave Democrats a Senate majority, is a hard-edged critic of the war not interested in bipartisanship. Discarding staff-written talking points, professional writer Webb declared: "The president took us into this war recklessly."

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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