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Week in Politics: White House Has Its Hands Full

LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Politics dominated the national news this week with the Bush administration facing choppy waters on two different seas. The controversy around the firing of U.S. prosecutors continued to build with the release of new documents, and the suddenly united Democrats passed an anti-war bill in the House of Representatives.

Joining us to discuss both issues is Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.

Good morning, nice to see you again, Doyle.

Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Washington Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Good morning, Liane. It's good to see you.

HANSEN: Let's start with Iraq. House Democrats on Friday passed a bill setting a deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. They celebrated even though the Senate version of the bill will be much harder to pass, and the president has said he'll veto it if it does. And the Democrats recognize they won't have the votes to override it. So, given that, why did the Democrats work so hard to pass the bill?

Mr. McMANUS: Well in a sense, the answer is fear, fear of failure. Look, the issue of Iraq was the single most important reason those Democrats got their majority in the House of Representatives, the single most important reason that Nancy Pelosi is now the speaker of the House. And if they couldn't pass some kind of binding restriction on the president's ability to continue prosecuting the war in Iraq, they really would have to go back to their supporters and to the country with a lot of explanation to do about what they thought they were doing up there.

Late in the week, they were having - daily caucus meetings to try and get people in line. And late in the week, Rahm Emanuel, the head of their caucus, said look, we've had days of discussion on the substance of this issue. These have been excellent discussions. But he said, at this point, it comes down to politics: Can we be a governing majority, or can't we? And that's basically what was on the line for them.

It's interesting that they got exactly 218 votes. That is exactly a majority, plus one of the House of Representatives, if everybody is there and showing up. So that's what was being demonstrated last week.

HANSEN: Were you surprised, though, by the unity of the Democrats in passing the bill? And do you think that gives the White House a few worries?

Mr. McMANUS: Yes and yes. You know, it was hard for them. Interestingly enough, the toughest Democrats to bring on board weren't the moderates in the center, it was the anti-war Democrats who felt they were having to authorize money for the war, and that's always been a problem for the Democratic Party.

I think the White House is seriously worried about this. You were right to point out that President Bush is going to veto anything that would cut off funding or force a withdrawal, and that will be a serious showdown, but this vote is going to influence what the Senate does - the Senate takes up this issue on Monday - and it influences how that showdown comes out.

In effect, it reduces President Bush's margin for error, and so it means he's going to have more trouble all year long keeping his funding together to fight this war.

HANSEN: Let's talk about perhaps another showdown. Friday, new documents showing Attorney General Gonzales attended a meeting about the removal of U.S. prosecutors last November, and it seemed to contradict his statement that he wasn't involved in any discussions about the firings.

Justice Department officials denied there was any contradiction, but another Republican, Ohio Representative Paul Gillmor, called for Gonzales to step down. Do you see a real showdown looming?

Mr. McMANUS: I think we're going into a showdown, but it's going to be a showdown in slow motion, and you know, the Democrats are kind of enjoying that. They're kind of enjoying the water-torture aspect of this. The first step is actually going to come this coming week when the Senate Judiciary Committee takes testimony from Justice Department officials.

Officials of the Justice Department have to answer subpoenas from Congress. They can't argue executive privilege like people in the White House can, and so they're going to try and establish what the attorney general knew and when did he know it, and then the second step will be that longer fight over subpoenas to White House officials.

But for Alberto Gonzales, that may not matter. You know, the attorney general got what everybody took as a statement of support yesterday from Senator Orrin Hatch, a very influential Republican member of that committee. Senator Hatch said he didn't see any reason Gonzales should resign unless it becomes clear that he deliberately misled Congress.

Well, there was the standard that was set. You're going to hear those words an awful lot more. That didn't actually get the attorney general off the hook, it just showed what rule he has to live by.

HANSEN: Doyle, how do you think this issue is playing beyond the Beltway?

Mr. McMANUS: Good question. I think to a large degree, it's being taken at this point as one of those inside-the-Beltway tiffs. I think people are taking the furious charges on both sides with a grain of salt, and they're probably right to do that. But if you look at the newspapers, it's out there, it's being paid attention to.

HANSEN: Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. It's always a pleasure to have you in the studio, Doyle.

Mr. McMANUS: Thank you, Liane. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.