GOP braces for uncertain outcomes in leak case

Republican lawmakers have remained unusually quiet about the potential political fallout if U.S. Attorney Patrick Fitzgerald indicts top White House aides in his investigation into whether they disclosed the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame or tried to hinder his inquiry.

Until last year, Republican lawmakers, especially in the House, had swiftly attacked President Bush’s opponents. But given Bush’s plummeting polls numbers and the secrecy involved in grand-jury testimony and deliberations, GOP lawmakers have been less willing to defend the White House.

Majority Leader Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) told reporters last week that he had no comment and that he had not discussed the case with Karl Rove, Bush’s deputy chief of staff, with whom Blunt meets every other week.

Rep. Jack Kingston (Ga.), the House GOP conference vice chairman, meanwhile, played down the impact White House indictments would have on House reelection chances.

“I think there’s concern about it, but [people are also wondering] where this investigation is going because we have all read that it does not seem like there was a violation” of the Intelligence Identities Protection Act of 1982.

“I don’t think it translates to anything that is going to hurt the House, in terms of anybody’s own fortunes or reelections,” he continued. “We’re more concerned about immigration, gas prices and spending cuts.”

For the past month, media reports have pointed to Rove and I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby as potential targets of Fitzgerald’s investigation into who leaked Plame’s name to reporters, a felony under federal law. Fitzgerald is also investigating whether anyone has misled or obstructed his investigation. Exactly when Fitzgerald might end his two-year-old inquiry is unclear, although the grand jury expires Friday.

On July 14, 2003, conservative columnist Robert Novak identified Plame as a CIA operative. Her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had traveled to Niger to investigate whether Iraq was trying to buy uranium. When he returned, Wilson criticized the White House’s justification for war in Iraq. Novak wrote that two administration officials told him that Wilson’s wife had helped arrange the trip.

Last year, Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.), then angling to become chairman of the Homeland Security Committee, took aim at Wilson and advised his colleagues to wait for a Supreme Court appointment to overshadow the investigation.

King continued to heap criticism on Wilson yesterday, telling The Hill that Wilson is a fraud and that the government “had a right to make known that his wife sent him on the trip.”

“It’s very logical to set the record straight,” he said, adding that political consequences would depend on the nature of the indictment, but if an official is indicted he “probably” should resign.  

The recommendation that he should resign echoed comments made over the weekend by GOP Sen. George Allen (Va.).

“I think they will step down if they’re indicted,” Allen said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Although the Republican National Committee (RNC) sent talking points to its supporters on the topic last Friday, there appears to be little coordination between the two branches of government.

A senior House Republican aide said congressional Republicans are not providing their members with talking points on the leak investigation because they don’t “have control” over Justice Department investigations into White House activities.

“The White House does its own thing,” the aide said. “We barely talk to them. … The only thing we’re in control of now is the legislative agenda. When it comes to actions taken against Republicans in the judicial area, we don’t have control over that.”

It’s not unusual that lawmakers are not vigorously defending Bush, according to Stephen Wayne, a presidential scholar at Georgetown University.

“Before presidents are lame ducks,  [there is a] sitting-ducks tendency. This is part of a natural cycle called the second-term curse,” Wayne said, pointing out that Southern Democrats ran from President Clinton in 1998 and that Republicans avoided President Nixon in 1974.

Today, Senate Republicans have shown an independent streak on a number of personnel and policy issues. Harriet Miers, Bush’s nominee to become an associate justice of the Supreme Court, has received little praise from Senate Republicans.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also went their own way and disregarded Bush’s wishes when they prevailed earlier this month in adding an amendment to a defense-spending bill that would limit interrogation methods and prohibit inhumane treatment of detainees held by the U.S. government.

“The Republicans have been unusually well-coordinated and cohesive because they decided it was the best way to get everyone reelected,” said Ronald Peters, a congressional scholar at the University of Oklahoma. “We saw this in 2002 and 2004. But all that changes when the president is no longer on the ballot.”

When e-mails between Rove and Time magazine reporter Matt Cooper surfaced this summer, Mark Mehlman, chairman of the RNC, blamed “the angry left” for attacking Rove.

But, for the most part, lately Democrats have remained quiet on the leak investigation, focusing instead on whether the Bush administration distorted evidence that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction to go to war in Iraq.

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