Political Roundup

The defense allocation vote is coming up next week in the Senate and the campaign for the 2008 presidential election continues. Robert Smith speaks with Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief of the Los Angeles Times.

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ROBERT SMITH, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Robert Smith.

This week, the Senate will turn its attention to the annual Defense Department Authorization Bill and there should be plenty of fireworks in Washington, D.C. The bill is thick with amendments - all of them will be fodder for arguments from both sides of the aisle.

Joining us to look to next week is Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Great to meet you, Doyle.

Mr. DOYLE McMANUS (Washington Bureau Chief, Los Angeles Times): Good to be here, Robert.

SMITH: First, let's take a look at the weekly Republican defections from the president. The big one last week was Pete Domenici, but yesterday, Lamar Alexander and Judd Greg expressed doubts about the current policy. How is this going to affect the Senate debate next week?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, it's going to affect it in a couple of ways. Susan Collins, a Republican from Maine, said this was like a dike bursting. That there is a lot of pent up Republican frustration with this war and more, maybe, to come. And I think that's the big story of the week. That the White House's problem is no longer the Democrats who want to impose a timetable or stop American combat operations in Iraq. It's those Republicans who bit by bit are moving away from the president's policy and deciding that his surge - his increase in troop strength in Iraq just isn't working.

Republican congressional aides tell us that there are now 60 votes in the Senate - the number you need to go ahead and move a bill - to do something that declares that there needs to be a change in policy. The question is going to be exactly what and how hard is it.

SMITH: Well, frustration really is the byword in Washington, D.C., and the administration's clearly worried about political pressure to end the surge. Last week we saw Major General Rick Lynch, commander of coalition forces in central Iraq, jumping into the political fray and making this defense of the surge saying withdrawal is going to lead to a bloody mess. Were you surprised by that kind of politics in the military?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, to be fair to Gen. Lynch, he was answering a question from a reporter. He didn't jump up on the table and say here's a message that I've got to give you. And it was a message that we've heard from other generals. We've heard it form General Ray Odierno who's the overall ground commander in Iraq, who had said in his view, the surge has to continue well into next year. We heard it in a more muted and subtle way, if you like, from General David Petraeus, the head of the whole American enterprise in the Middle East.

Part of what's going on here is that those officer really do believe these things, but the other part is that the administration need credible spokesman and it's political spokesman have ran out of gas a little bit. They need to roll out generals if they're going to move Republican sentiment on this issue.

SMITH: We'll turn back to Congress. What can they do at this point about the war? What are the real options?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, that's a terrific question. What you're going to see next week as you mentioned is a whole raft of different ways of saying the surge isn't working. It's time to move to a new policy. It's time to pull American troops out of direct combat in the streets of Baghdad and elsewhere. A lot of these amendments or versions are going to say it's time to embrace something like the commission under former Secretary Of State James Baker, former Congressman Lee Hamilton and that is to move toward an advisory role. But the big question is, is there going to be a timetable? Is there going to be anything that will force the administration to change course?

So far, Republicans are basically out there waving semaphore flags at the White House saying please change course. And President Bush is saying not yet. I'm not ready. As far as I can tell, it's - there still is not a veto proof majority to force a timetable. Some republicans are ready to go there, but not most of them and White House officials are fairly frank in saying that their ace in the whole(ph) is the president can't resist. The president can veto. The president doesn't have to follow anything that's not binding.

So, bottom line, my best guess is we will have - at the end of an enormous contentious, firework-strewn, two-week debate. A resolution from the Senate directing the administration to change course, laying down no fix timetable and the administration, at least in the short run, won't want to change course.

SMITH: Well, it's going to be such a great show that the four Senate Democrats running for president are going to tear themselves away from Iowa and come back to the Senate floor. How vocal do you expect them to be during the debate?

Mr. McMANUS: Oh, very vocal.

SMITH: Yeah.

Mr. McMANUS: Actually, you know, there are two kinds of senators, those who are running for president and those who might someday want to run for president. I think you can almost expect all 100 of them, but, yeah, in this case, Hillary Clinton - Senator Clinton has an amendment that she is sponsoring. Senator Barack Obama wants to get on television and remind people that he was against the war form the start. Senator Joe Biden who's running for president is chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and has been very active in putting forward proposals on Iraq. And Senator Christ Dodd, a dark horse candidate, has his own withdrawal amendments. So we are going to see a parade of presidents, future president, past presidents, want to be presidents - every kind of presidents.

SMITH: Well, speaking of the presidential parade, is Iowa this week, Hillary Clinton brought out her secret weapon. And judging from the press coverage, Bill Clinton might have over shadowed her there. Do you think this was an effective move for her?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, did he or didn't he over shadow her? This was the fodder for political reports. Bill Clinton who holds the land record for length of State of the Union speeches held himself to eight minutes. This was an extraordinary restraint by the former president. I think it was a good move in this sense. Number one, Hillary Clinton's campaign is trying to drawn on nostalgia among Democrats for what some still see as the good old days of the Clinton administration. And number two, president Clinton is too big to hide.

SMITH: Exactly right. Fred Thompson, the Republican not quite candidate was thrown a curve last week, in fact, by your newspaper, the L.A. Times. They reported that Thomson lobbied(ph) first President Bush on behalf of a family planning group - trying to persuade the president to relax an abortion restriction. He's now, of course, complaining - campaigning on an anti-abortion platform. How does this affect his role as a sort of conservative dream candidate?

Mr. McMANUS: Well, it does affect - he now has previous position to explain. He was a moderate on abortion when he ran for the Senate in 1994. You know, it's a gift to Mitt Romney who's had to explain some changes on his position too.

SMITH: Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Thanks, Doyle.

Mr. McMANUS: Thank you, Robert.

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