Senate Democrats Test Bush's Authority

Democrats in the Senate are turning up the heat on the White House. The full Senate passed a military spending bill that would include a timetable for pulling troops from Iraq. Subpoenas are in the works for White House aides to testify on the firing of eight U.S. attorneys.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning, I'm Steve Inskeep.

This next report would be shorter if we chose to focus on the parts of the Bush administration that are not under pressure instead of those that are. Among other things, Democrats are challenging the president's authority to continue the war in Iraq, and lawmakers are raising more questions about the attorney general.

NPR White House correspondent David Greene has been following all of this and joins us. David, good morning.

DAVID GREENE: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: The White House has spent much of this week on the defensive.

GREENE: They sure have. And, you know, sometimes when the White House is really under siege like this on a lot of issues, the president might try to find a distraction, maybe travel, play up some domestic issues somewhere in the country. But aides say he decided this week to really stay put and try to take on Democrats. And it's been harder, though, to find that right effective message.

And at the White House briefing yesterday, the spokeswoman who's filling in for Tony Snow, who of course just had surgery, is Dana Perino. She was barraged with questions about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who it now seems may have been more involved in the U.S. attorney firings than he led Congress to believe. And questions about Iraq. Here's a little sampling of a lot of the questions thrown at her yesterday.

Unidentified Man: How can the attorney general, in your opinion, continue to be effective if apparently he stood up and said something that was categorically false?

Ms. DANA PERINO (Deputy White House Press Secretary): You know, I'm going to let the Justice Department and the attorney general speak for himself.

Unidentified Woman: Is the president trying to demonstrate that he is still carrying out the nation's business even if this investigation is going on in Capitol Hill?

Ms. PERINO: The fact is that we are. And...

Unidentified Man #2: Can he abide by any kind of goal for the withdrawal of troops even if it's non-binding?

Ms. PERINO: I think I'd - I will decline to negotiate from here. I think that those are important conversations that need to happen between...

INSKEEP: David Greene, did she actually shrug while giving any of those answers?

GREENE: Not really. She was good, but a lot of the - just topic after topic being thrown at her, given the current climate.

INSKEEP: Well, let's talk about Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. You alluded to that. Can the president keep supporting him if he keeps losing supporters on Capitol Hill. Well, yesterday was not a good day for Gonzales. His former chief of staff, Kyle Sampson, testified, said his former boss knew more about the dismissal of specific U.S. attorney than he lead on. And Sampson actually said Gonzales' previous statements about what he knew were not accurate.

So it was a pretty remarkable moment on the Hill. And as you heard from Perino, when she was asked about that, not exactly a huge endorsement. She said the president stands by Gonzales but that the attorney general will have to speak for himself. And she also said that everyone who works for the president serves at his pleasure.

At any moment, you're no longer serving at his pleasure. You're no longer working for him. Now, the White House did sent out a statement late last night saying that the president believes Gonzales will overcome these challenges.

INSKEEP: Now, is it likely or when is it likely that White House officials are going to get subpoenaed to testify about their role in these firings?

GREENE: Well, we're not sure. I mean, Democrats are trying to move ahead, and both Houses have now authorized the use of subpoenas. And the Senate Judiciary Committee plans to hold a meeting they were originally scheduled to yesterday to make a decision about whether to subpoena people from the White House. They were waiting to hear exactly what Kyle Sampson had to say first. And it sounds like what he said yesterday might make them more eager to subpoena someone.

One of their targets of course, Steve, is the president top political adviser, Karl Rove, and we've got some more insight into Rove yesterday from the Justice Department. The department said that they actually understated Rove's role in at least one of the firings. The top Republican on the panel, Arlen Specter, said he wants to hear from Rove sooner rather than later.

But the White House is still not budging. Mr. Bush is keeping to his position that his aides will not testify under oath and there will be no transcript. And there's no evidence that the White House has been negotiating with the Hill. The president's top lawyer, Fred Fielding, was talking to people on the Hill, but it doesn't seem like these talks have gone anywhere so far and it doesn't look like it compromise is in sight. So Democrats still want testimony and a transcript, and perhaps under oath, the White House isn't budging yet.

INSKEEP: David, very briefly, one other issue in this very busy week. The Senate passed legislation on Iraq yesterday, which includes a call for U.S. troops to brought home on a timeline. Any chance the president might compromise with Congress on that?

GREENE: Well, we have to look at the details, Steve. the House passed a bill mandating that all troops are out of Iraq by next September. The Senate bill is different. It states a goal of having most troops home by next spring. The only thing the Senate bill requires is that at least some troops start to come home in four months. So that's something that the president might be able to negotiate and bring, you know, 10, 20, 100 troops home to follow the mandate from the Senate, if he would be willing to do that politically. So, right now, the White House is saying if there's any mandates at all about troop decisions, there will be a veto.

INSKEEP: David, thanks.

GREENE: Thanks, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR White House correspondent David Greene.

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