Political Roundup: Pelosi in Syria, Iraq Debate

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria and other points in the Middle East draw objections from the White House. Meanwhile, the debate over Iraq turns into a political slugfest over war-funding bills and timelines for troop withdrawals.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

From NPR News, this is WEEKEND EDITION. I'm Liane Hansen.

Not so long ago, there was a tradition in Washington that said politics should stop at the water's edge. In other words, no matter how strong the animosities in this country, the president ought to be granted sole authority to negotiate with other countries. In more gentle times, opposition leaders even refrained from criticizing the president in public while he or they traveled overseas.

Recently, this tradition has faded, but there are still those who say congressional leaders shouldn't travel to countries perceived as hostile by the administration. And some of that disapproval is coming down on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's trip to Syria.

Joining us to discuss this and other Capitol topics is NPR's senior Washington editor, Ron Elving. Good morning, Ron.

RON ELVING: Good morning, Liane, and may you live to see gentler times.

HANSEN: Thank you. Well, so what's fair and foul with Speaker Pelosi going to Syria?

ELVING: Well, so far, most of the criticism seems to be coming from the White House. And they were perturbed; they were not given advance notice that the speaker planned to go to Syria, which of course the White House does regard as a somewhat hostile country - not quite axis of evil, you understand, but not helpful in the process with Iraq and so on; also, of course, a big supporter of organizations the administration considers to be terrorists.

So obviously, no administration wants other voices competing with its own voice in such a critical region, especially not in a country that has the record that Syria has and that this administration is not sending people to go visit. But, you know, this is not really just another way for Nancy Pelosi or the congressional leadership to thumb their nose at this president. It's really an example of how she is trying to set herself up as a national leader, and, for example, she's also, on this same trip, going to the Israeli Knesset to give a speech, and she is the highest-ranking woman American official ever to speak to the Israeli Parliament.

So she's in the region also with other legislators including, in a separate group, several Republicans who are also going to go to Syria, and this is a little bit broader assertion, I think, of congressional power that isn't necessarily just a punch in the nose to this president.

HANSEN: But then, it's not a part of a larger pattern of defiance from Democratic leaders on foreign policy, say, or other issues?

ELVING: It does fit the pattern of defiance in the sense that the Democrats clearly are setting up a alternative view of the region and an alternative policy with respect to Iraq. Of course, the main front there is the resolution or rather the supplemental appropriation bill that both the House and Senate have passed that includes a timetable, a timetable for getting out of Iraq, and a timetable that's pretty popular with the American people.

Of course, the timetable they voted for is not the same in the House and Senate, so they're going to have to work that out, and that's going to take a little bit more time. And they've now left town for the Easter break, and they won't be back until mid-April to do those negotiations.

And then the president has promised a veto, so that'll mean another round in Congress - maybe more than one round - so it's going to be late April or even longer before that appropriations bill for Iraq and Afghanistan gets passed.

HANSEN: Is - would the delay, then, put U.S. troops in greater danger or make life more difficult for them?

ELVING: There's going to be a great argument over this throughout the month and maybe into May, because the administration says the holdup means, at some point, no more bullets and beans for the troops. Congress is going to say, that's silly, the Pentagon has plenty of money; it just needs to adjust its accounts.

And there's a Congressional Research Service report, and the Congressional Research Service is about is down the middle as you're going to find in Washington. And it says that yeah, the Pentagon can do that, but only into, perhaps, July, before they really would start to run up against some serious rubs.

And even with that report, I would suspect the White House and Republicans in Congress are going to continue to hit this one pretty hard and put the pressure on the Democrats to make sure the troops are fully supported.

HANSEN: Where is the case between the White House and Congress and the unhappiness over Attorney General Alberto Gonzales and the firing of the U.S. attorneys last year? Where is that going?

ELVING: It's going to get wider, Liane. For one thing, it's not just about eight fired attorneys. Since Bush's reelection, something approaching half the 93 U.S. attorney jobs have turned over, not through firings but to some degree voluntarily. And the Washington Post this morning is reporting that about a third of the new attorneys appointed are, quote, "trusted administration insiders." Ten of them, in fact, were senior aides to Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, and he is supposed to come up and talk to Congress on April 17th. That's going to be quite a session if he hasn't decided by then to resign on his own.

HANSEN: And very briefly, any way to avoid a showdown between the president, Congress over Iraq, testimony of White House staff, just in the few seconds we have left?

ELVING: Yes. They can sit down and they can negotiate agreements on both those fronts if the will is there to compromise.

HANSEN: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. Thanks a lot, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Liane.

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