Week in Review: Troubles for Bush

Linda Wertheimer reviews the week's news, including President Bush's new low poll numbers, with NPR Senior News Analyst Daniel Schorr.

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LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. Scott Simon is away. I'm Linda Wertheimer.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: We have got a--my obligation is to set an agenda and I've done that. And the agenda is fighting and winning the war on terror and keeping the economic vitality and growth alive, dealing with the energy problem, nominating people to the Supreme Court that adhere to the philosophy that I campaigned on.

WERTHEIMER: President Bush Friday at a press conference in Mar del Plata, Argentina, where he's been attending a hemispheric summit. NPR's senior news analyst Daniel Schorr joins us now.

Dan, hi.

DANIEL SCHORR reporting:

Hi, Linda. Glad to be with you again.

WERTHEIMER: Thank you. Dan, the president continues to stay on message no matter what the press asks him, despite many distractions this week at home and on his trip.

SCHORR: Yeah. Well, there have been stormy demonstrations against him in Argentina, but this is, as you suggest, not a very great week for our president here at home. This may be remembered as the week that a Washington Post-ABC poll showed President Bush at an unprecedented 60 percent of people not approving of his performance in office, and, perhaps, more menacingly, that 58 percent question his personal integrity.

WERTHEIMER: And that's a relatively new development for the president to lose ground on that number.

SCHORR: That's right. Even people who didn't agree with his policies or his ideology were usually inclined to say, `Well, he's very straightforward and honest and so on.' And now 58 percent are not saying that.

WERTHEIMER: Now the so-called CIA leak investigation seems to be playing a role in the president's sinking popularity. That same poll says 49 percent of people think that presidential assistant Karl Rove did something wrong.

SCHORR: That's right.

WERTHEIMER: Now Vice President Cheney's assistant, Lewis "Scooter" Libby has been arraigned on five charges of perjury and obstruction of justice. What happens next with Mr. Libby and his legal proceedings?

SCHORR: Well, let's see now. Libby has waived the right to a speedy trial which he could have asked for. He's also pleaded innocent, as you might expect, to all five counts against him. So the next thing that happened is a hearing is scheduled for February 3rd, which means that the Libby case will be hanging over the administration for the next several months to come, during which time there'll probably be some pressure on Libby to plea-bargain. And if he plea-bargains, what names is he going to name then? And then if there is a trial, there'll be witnesses called. Those witnesses could include, perhaps, Vice President Cheney. We do not know. But this is not working very well for the administration at the moment.

WERTHEIMER: Do you seriously think that there will be a trial? It seems to me that Mr. Libby would be under enormous pressure not to do that by his colleagues in the Bush administration.

SCHORR: That's right, but the only way not to do that is to enter a guilty plea to at least part of it, and I don't think he's inclined--not now. I mean, we've got a lot of months for him to change his mind, but as of now, I don't think he would do that.

WERTHEIMER: A highlight for the president this week seems to have been his second nominee to replace Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. After the withdrawal of the name of Harriet Miers to the Supreme Court, the president named Judge Samuel Alito.

SCHORR: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: Quite a different nominee from Ms. Miers. For one thing, he's been an appellate judge for 15 years.

SCHORR: That's right. I guess the one thing you cannot say about Judge Alito is that there's no paper trail, which is what they were saying about Harriet Miers all along. No, the issue with Alito, if there is to be an issue with him, is not his knowledge. He apparently knows the law very well. It's going to be an ideological question. He is very right wing, perhaps as right wing as Justice Scalia. And so if he fills the O'Connor seat now, which was a swing seat, he could alone play an important part in tilting the court to the right. And the Democrats are taking this all terribly seriously, although they haven't quite decided what to do.

WERTHEIMER: Well, what do we hear from the Democrats? What about this bipartisan group of moderate senators who call themselves the Gang of 14...

SCHORR: Yeah.

WERTHEIMER: ...and they've promised no filibuster except in extraordinary circumstances? What are you hearing from Democrats about Judge Alito's prospects for confirmation?

SCHORR: Well, they're playing very carefully right now. I mean, they say, `Yeah, we'll have a big ideological contest over this but maybe not right away.' Mostly you're getting, `Let the thing settle for a little bit, like a good saute. Let it settle, let's see which way this thing is going and what the prospects are.' The Gang of 14 that you refer to--seven Democrats, seven moderate Republicans who played an important part in the past in finding a way to avoid a filibuster--they met and they came out and said, `Yeah, we met. We talked. We haven't decided anything.' There is a sense now of suspended animation, of waiting for this thing to settle down before the different parties decide how they're going to fight this out.

WERTHEIMER: And they're going to have some time because there won't be hearings until the 9th of January, according to the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee.

SCHORR: That's right, which is a big disappointment to President Bush who had asked to have this done before Christmas. And here is Chairman Arlen Specter who's supposedly carrying water for the administration but turns out to be independent. He says, `There's so much stuff there we got to go through, we can't really get started on hearings until January.'

WERTHEIMER: Well, meanwhile the Senate has been busy with the budget bill, which it finally adopted on Thursday. It passed, 52-to-47.

SCHORR: Yep.

WERTHEIMER: That's not exactly a landslide. Tell us about that and where do you think the House is on their version?

SCHORR: Well, both of them have one thing in common. They need to save money. They need to do something to reduce the deficit. They need to take out $35 billion or whatever it was they were planning to do, and, in both cases, the deepest cuts come for people who are poor. They want to cut Medicare. They want to cut Medicaid. They want to cut housing allowances for the poor. They want to cut food stamps. Three hundred thousand people will be cut out of food stamps if these proposals end up as part of the final bill.

WERTHEIMER: And something unusual happened in the Senate this week, a closed session on what was wrong with intelligence leading up to the Iraq War. Minority Leader Harry Reid invoked Rule 21, which shut the doors to the Senate floor. The Republicans weren't happy about it.

SCHORR: Yes, I doubt whether one person out of a hundred knew about Rule 21, which makes it possible for any one senator seconded by another senator to force the Senate into closed session. The Republicans were furious about it. For the Democrats, it was their way of trying to keep alive the issue of what poor intelligence we had and they were tickled by it.

WERTHEIMER: And on the subject of the much-maligned CIA, which provided a lot of that intelligence, The Washington Post broke a story this week about CIA-operated secret prisons in Eastern Europe and Asia for al-Qaeda prisoners. Now the European Union is ordering an investigation. Why does the US need secret prisons?

SCHORR: Well, some people think that it needs secret prisons because if you interrogate them somewhere in Europe, in Poland or some in Thailand or one of these other places, they don't come under American law and presumably don't come under the Geneva Convention. It is a way of getting rough with people overseas so you don't get accused of being rough with them in this country or Guantanamo.

WERTHEIMER: And, Dan, the visit of Prince Charles and his new bride, Camilla.

SCHORR: Yes.

WERTHEIMER: A successful royal visit?

SCHORR: Well, so far. I'm rather impressed with one thing about this visit. They're not only having tea parties and going to big dinners and so on, but they're going to places where poor people are. They went to Anacostia here in Washington and to New Orleans, to Ninth Ward. They show a very healthy interest in people who are not royal people.

WERTHEIMER: Thanks very much, Dan.

SCHORR: Sure.

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