Bush Stands Firm on Iraq, Despite Debate

Renee Montagne talks with Senior Correspondent Juan Williams about the week ahead for the president as he returns his tour of Asia. His time away was punctuated by focus at home on debate about the Iraq war among lawmakers.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

President Bush returns to Washington today and the issues that followed him as he traveled through Asia. Joining me now for some analysis is NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Renee.

MONTAGNE: And, Juan, there's been tremendous fallout from that raucous debate last week in the House over the war in Iraq. Where does the conversation stand as of today?

WILLIAMS: Well, the conversation really left some hard feelings from last week. You've had now the Senate just last week vote to require progress reports from the administration every three months and set 2006 as the basic time frame for some sort of withdrawal of US troops, even the beginning of that withdrawal if not a total withdrawal. And in addition, you have really just hard feelings because of the debate getting so personal. You know, Congressman John Murtha, a Democrat of Pennsylvania, a decorated military man who served in Vietnam, proposed last week that the US should get out over the next six months. That led to a real fight on Friday in the House with the newest member of Congress, Jean Schmidt, a Republican of Ohio, saying that she had a personal message, a call from a Marine colonel who wanted her to say this is Congressman Murtha:

(Soundbite of debate)

Representative JEAN SCHMIDT (Republican, Ohio): He asked me to send Congress a message: Stay the course. He also asked me to send Congressman Murtha a message that cowards cut and run; Marines never do.

WILLIAMS: And that led, of course, to just the terrible scene on the floor. Literally Marty Meehan, a Congressman from Massachusetts, screaming at the Republicans, `You guys are pathetic,' and Harold Ford, a congressman from Tennessee, another Democrat, literally rushing to the Republican side, and it looked as if we might have a fracas break out. So it was quite a scene on the floor, and Schmidt's remarks brought this reply from Congressman Murtha.

(Soundbite of debate)

Representative JOHN MURTHA (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I go by Arlington Cemetery every day, and the vice president--he criticizes Democrats. Let me tell you, those gravestones don't say Democrat or Republican.

(Soundbite of applause)

Rep. MURTHA: They say American!

(Soundbite of applause and cheers)

WILLIAMS: And, Renee, there was even a sharper exchange later with Murtha saying that criticisms that have come from the White House, in specific Vice President Cheney, are criticisms that come from people who have taken many military deferments from service, aimed at him, someone who is a veteran of the Vietnam War.

MONTAGNE: Going forward, how is this debate likely to play out?

WILLIAMS: Well, this was a very bitter debate, and I think there are hard feelings likely to linger, But what you have is with the discussions being so polarized, there still remains a focus on how to get US troops out of Iraq, both from Republicans and Democrats. You've got Congress in a recess until next month, but on the Republicans side, and I think that's what we've got to watch here, you have people concerned about the '06 elections, and their concern is that voters, displeased with the progress of the war in Iraq--the fact that it's cost so much, the fact that so many people have lost their lives--may take it out on the Congress in the course of the midterm elections, especially Republicans in Congress. So you have polls showing Americans really pulling away from the president in terms of approval ratings for the president being at all-time low, people very concerned about his handling of the war in Iraq.

MONTAGNE: And how is President Bush responding to all this?

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, the White House has been very defensive about its handling of the war. The president and his aides continue to make the case; the president did it throughout his trip in Asia, that the US must stay its course. This week, the president is going to be taking some time off, going to his ranch in Texas for Thanksgiving, but once he's back in Washington, his White House aides are now deciding that really it'd be better for the president to make some major speeches ahead of the State of the Union in January, in which the president lays out how progress is being made by the American forces in Iraq. They want the president to give specific details about political progress--the writing of a constitution, the elections and the like--in addition to how training of Iraqi soldiers is going and efforts to rebuild the infrastructure of the country.

MONTAGNE: And finally, Juan, last week a new twist in the investigation into the leak of a CIA agent's identity. It now appears that Bob Woodward was the first journalist to have been told the identity of Valerie Plame. What's going on?

WILLIAMS: Well, the special prosecutor, Patrick Fitzgerald, has announced that there will be a new grand jury to hear evidence in the case. As you said, Renee, Bob Woodward, the Washington Post reporter, said that he had a conversation in advance of any conversation that was held by the vice president's chief of staff, Scooter Libby about the name of this CIA agent, Valerie Plame. So what this means, Renee, is that there's a cloud lingering over the White House, that the conversations will continue, testimony will continue and speculation will continue. It still isn't even clear if Karl Rove, the president's deputy chief of staff, will be indicted. All of that will lead to conversations about whether or not there's more trouble to come from this investigation for the White House.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much, Juan. That's NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. And there's more political analysis at our Web site, npr.org.

You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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