White House Adjusts to Democrats' Oversight
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
The new climate of intense congressional oversight has left the White House trying to adapt. Suddenly it's much harder for the administration to control damage when a scandal or a potentially embarrassing story breaks. It's also affected the president's ability to pursue an agenda of his choosing in his final years in office. NPR's Don Gonyea reports from the White House.
DON GONYEA: The currently controversy over the December dismissal of the eight U.S. attorneys illustrates just how much the world has changed for the White House. In the past, prior to the Democratic takeover of Congress, this administration would prepare a narrowly focused, tightly controlled response that could be repeated over and over.
The White House has such an answer to the U.S. attorneys controversy. Here's press secretary Tony Snow yesterday.
Mr. TONY SNOW (White House Press Secretary): Let me make a simple point. U.S. attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president, and these were proper decisions to remove U.S. attorneys.
GONYEA: Other administration officials in phone conversations and at news conferences have all repeatedly made that same case, including Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and in the past, before the last election changed things, there would be no worry about congressional hearings keeping the issue on the front burner. But not anymore.
In this new world, the White House now is awaiting congressional subpoenas calling on presidential aide Karl Rove and former White House lawyer Harriet Miers to testify about the firings. It's a request the administration is expected to resist, but it keeps the story in the news and keeps the questions coming, so much so that presidential counselor Dan Bartlett this week held a rare on-camera briefing about the U.S. attorney firings and possible subpoenas.
Mr. DAN BARTLETT (Presidential Counselor): I find it highly unlikely that a member of the White House staff would testify publicly to these matters, but that doesn't mean we won't find other ways to try to share that information.
GONYEA: Those comments by Bartlett were made in Mexico, in the middle of President Bush's now-concluded trip to Latin America. That's where the president was on Wednesday when he himself held a news conference with the Mexican President, and while Mr. Bush hoped to talk about immigration and trade, half of the questions were about the controversy back home and his embattled attorney general.
Unidentified Man: What's his future in your cabinet? Do you have confidence in him? And more importantly, or just as important, how effective can he be in Congress going forward...
GONYEA: The president said he has confidence in Gonzales but acknowledged that mistakes were made in how the whole episode was explained to Congress. But again, in this new era such words to little to tamp the story down, and the ability of the Democrats to press the White House on such matters ultimately affects the administration's entire agenda.
Mr. MARTHA JOANNE KUMAR(ph) (Towson University): They don't get to talk about what they want to talk about.
GONYEA: That's presidential scholar Martha Joanne Kumar of Towson University, who says its been like this all year, with one controversy after another.
Ms. KUMAR: When the president wanted to give a major speech, an update on where we are in Iraq, he gave it to the American Legion, and he found that the articles that discussed that speech were buried in the middle of the A section of the major papers because other kinds of items, the prosecutors, Walter Reed, the Libby conviction, all took the front page.
GONYEA: And it's even more of a problem for a president in his final years in office, where time is short and when he's competing with all of the attention next year's presidential contest is already getting. Don Gonyea, NPR News, the White House.
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