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GOP Headaches Set to Multiply

Up This Week: Jack Abramoff

As official Washington, D.C., was riveted Friday by the drama surrounding the criminal indictment and subsequent resignation of I. Lewis “Scooter” Libby, chief of staff to Vice President Cheney, Republicans on Capitol Hill were busy preparing for the next chapters in the series of scandals surrounding the GOP.

The Libby indictment — and the possibility that White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove could be indicted as special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald continues his probe — could weigh heavily on Republicans in the second session of the 109th Congress and at the ballot box next fall. But other probes now under way could threaten Republicans in Congress more directly.

On Tuesday, Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Texas) will be back in court in Austin, Texas, to contest felony money laundering and conspiracy charges stemming from his role in the Lone Star State’s 2002 legislative races. DeLay’s indictment on those charges forced him to step down as Majority Leader in early October. DeLay has denied the charges and vowed to return to his leadership post.

On Wednesday, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) will hold his fourth and final hearing on former GOP lobbyist Jack Abramoff and his business dealings with a half-dozen American Indian tribes. McCain and his staff will then begin work on a committee report, expected to be released later this year, outlining the findings of their 18-month probe, according to Senate sources.

In addition, the long-sidelined House ethics committee is expected to be back in full operation soon. Rep. Doc Hastings (R-Wash.) and Alan Mollohan (D-W.Va.), chairman and ranking member of the panel, are conducting a search for a new chief counsel for the committee, and the two are said to be close to making a selection. Once the committee is up and running, it will begin preliminary probes of DeLay, House Administration Chairman Bob Ney (R-Ohio) and other Members caught up in the Abramoff and travel scandals.

Finally, Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) is under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission and the U.S. Attorney’s office in Manhattan over his sales of stock in his family’s hospital chain. Investigators are focusing on Frist’s decision to ask the executor who controlled the blind trusts for him, his wife and children to dump all stocks in HCA Inc., the company founded by Frist’s brother and father. The sale was carried out prior to a poor earnings report for HCA, but Frist has denied that he did anything improper and predicted that he will be exonerated in the probe.

Abramoff Probe Returns

For now, the widest-ranging problem for Republicans on Capitol Hill may be the Abramoff case. As chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, McCain has been looking into how Abramoff and his business partner, ex-DeLay aide Michael Scanlon, were able to rake in more than $80 million from those tribes in the period from 2001 to 2004.

A Justice Department task force is also investigating Abramoff. The ex-lobbyist was indicted in Florida in August on federal mail and wire fraud charges relating to his role in the purchase of a Florida-based casino cruise ship company, and more indictments are expected in the Washington investigation, although the Justice Department’s timetable for acting is a closely guarded secret.

McCain’s final hearing will focus on the Coushatta Tribe of Louisiana and its relationship with Abramoff. The Coushattas were one of Abramoff’s top clients, paying him more than $6 million over three years for lobbying work. The tribe also shelled out at least $25 million to Scanlon for grass-roots consulting work, a large portion of which was then funneled back to Abramoff.

The bulk of Abramoff’s work for the Coushattas involved his efforts to stir up opposition to a plan by a rival Louisiana tribe, the Jena Choctaws, to open their own casino, a move that could have siphoned off customers from the Coushattas’ casino. Abramoff lobbied top Interior Department officials to back the Coushattas, and he and Scanlon created front groups in Louisiana in an attempt to rally further resistance to the Choctaws’ proposed casino — groups funded secretly with Coushatta money.

Ralph Reed, the political consultant and former executive director of the Christian Coalition, also played a role in Abramoff’s work on behalf of the Coushattas and other tribes. Reed earned millions working on projects that benefitted Abramoff’s clients in several states, and Time magazine recently reported that Reed offered to intervene with top Bush administration officials on Abramoff’s behalf, including with Karl Rove, now White House deputy chief of staff.

McCain’s panel recently prepared subpoenas for several players involved in the Coushatta episode, including Italia Federici, a GOP environmental activist close to Interior Secretary Gale Norton. McCain aides declined to comment on the subpoenas or provide additional details on Wednesday’s hearings.

‘Moving Forward’ From Leak Case

But Friday was all about Libby’s indictment for obstruction of justice, making false statements to federal investigators and perjury. The charges — a blow to a White House already under fire for the Iraq war, the failed Supreme Court nomination of Harriet Miers, and the widely criticized federal response to Hurricane Katrina — were the result of a two-year investigation by Fitzgerald into who leaked the identity of CIA operative Valerie Plame to reporters. Libby allegedly disclosed Plame’s identity to the press in an effort to discredit her husband, former ambassador Joe Wilson, a vocal opponent of the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

Bush, despite the Libby indictment and the media frenzy surrounding the case, vowed to continue pushing forward with his own agenda, and indicated with he will unveil another Supreme Court nominee to replace Miers shortly.

“While we’re all saddened by today’s news, we remain wholly focused on the many issues and opportunities facing this country,” Bush told reporters before he departed for Camp David on Friday afternoon. “I got a job to do, and so do the people who work in the White House. We got a job to protect the American people, and that’s what we’ll continue working hard to do.”

Few Republicans wanted to comment on the Libby indictment publicly, although Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.), vice chairman of the House GOP Conference, did. Kingston was traveling to Georgia with Cheney, where the vice president was to attend several fundraisers.

“Mr. Libby’s resignation is appropriate. The court can now decide the facts of the case. An indictment is not a statement of guilt, but simply outlines the case for the prosecutor. Keep in mind that we have not heard Mr. Libby’s side of this story,” Kingston said.

He also repeated a new GOP mantra that “the Vice President and the White House can now move forward” from the Fitzgerald investigation.

Assessing Friday’s Damage

GOP leadership aides suggested that Friday could have been worse — that an indictment of Libby, while very bad news for Bush and the White House, was nowhere near as disastrous for the party as an indictment of Rove.

“This was the best of the bad scenarios,” said a senior House Republican staffer, expressing relief that Rove was not indicted as well. “Libby has nowhere near the name recognition or stature that Rove has. We’ve got to try to play through this and do the best we can do. We’ve got to focus on what we can control, and investigations are beyond our control.”

Another GOP leadership aide said that Frist, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and other top Republicans “have to go back to the fundamentals,” meaning pointing out continued strong economic growth here in the United States and slow but measurable progress in moving Iraq toward democracy, despite the continued American casualties there.

“The fundamentals are strong. We have to focus on that,” said the aide.

While some Democrats on the Hill shied away from the spotlight in discussing the fallout over Libby, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) launched a modest media offensive over the weekend to try to keep the heat on Republicans about how the Libby indictment was part of an effort to mislead the nation regarding the rationale for starting the Iraq war.

Reid, who has stayed away from the Sunday talk shows since becoming Minority Leader in January, was scheduled to appear on ABC’s “This Week” and CNN’s “Late Edition” on Sunday. And today Reid is slated to appear at the Christian Science Monitor’s Sperling lunch before several dozen reporters.

Aides said that the statement Reid released on Friday was a preview of the message he would be delivering throughout his media appearances over the weekend and this week — specifically, that the five-count indictment against Libby was more than just an example of the “culture of corruption and cronyism” that Democrats have been hammering the GOP with the past few months.

Rather, in Reid’s view, the Libby indictment further erodes the case for starting the war — a message that Democrats would push throughout the week, aides said. Reid voted in favor of the Iraq war in 2002.

“This case is bigger than the leak of highly classified information,” Reid said Friday. “It is about how the Bush White House manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to bolster its case for the war in Iraq and to discredit anyone who dared to challenge the president.”

A pair of potential Democratic presidential aspirants, Sens. Evan Bayh (Ind.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), also portrayed the indictment as something more serious than just a leak to the media. Invoking former President Bill Clinton’s line during his impeachment crisis, Bayh likened the attacks on Joe Wilson as “the politics of personal destruction.”

Bayh was to travel to New Hampshire Saturday, where he was expected to link Friday’s indictments to the divisive politics he accuses Bush of practicing. “We cannot meet the momentous challenges of our time as polarized, as deeply divided as we are,” Bayh said in prepared remarks.

Sen. Clinton said the indictment “raises serious national security issues,” calling on Bush to issue a promise to CIA operatives that no similar disclosure will happen again.

In the meantime, House Democrats appeared to be sending mixed messages in their response to the Libby indictment.

The top two Democratic leaders deliberately avoided showing glee over Libby’s indictment, while other senior Democrats and rank-and-file lawmakers wasted no time calling out the Bush administration for putting the country at risk and fostering a corrupt and an unethical government.

Democratic Divisions?

Despite the varied sentiments on the indictment, sources within the House Democratic Caucus insisted that the party is not fractured, arguing instead that some Members, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), felt no need to say more than is necessary at a low political point for Bush and the GOP.

Pelosi’s two-sentence statement focused only on how the indictments are “another chapter” in the Republican scandals, and accused the Bush administration of trying to discredit critics of its Iraqi policy.

Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) also took a measured approach, declining to talk about the political implications of the Libby indictment on Friday afternoon.

When pressed, Emanuel said: “Is there political significance? Yes. Does it require us to make politics or interpret politics? No.”

Yet other Democrats refused to hold their fire, with some calling for Congressional hearings over how the Bush administration sold the Iraqi conflict to the public, or an expansion of the CIA investigation into whether the White House deceived Congress into authorizing the war.

Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said the public “should be outraged about this entire episode,” and called it a sad day for the country and the Bush administration. Democratic Caucus Chairman Bob Menendez (N.J.) accused the White House of misleading the country “over the most important issue any president faces, the decision on whether to take the country to war, and then tried to cover up that fact by silencing its critics.”

“The president now has a rare chance to come clean,” Menendez added. “I hope he takes it.”

Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), ranking member on the House Intelligence Committee, suggested that, in the wake of the Libby indictment, it might be worthwhile for Congress to consider revising the laws that govern disclosure of classified information. She noted that under current law, it must be proven that a person intentionally identified a covert agent — a difficult if not impossible test for prosecutors to make. Harman also declared that she was in favor of a “shield” law to protect reporters from having to reveal their sources. The forced testimony of journalists was a crucial element in Fitzgerald’s investigation.

“It may be a good idea to look into whether the statutes that prosecute people for leaking set the bar too high,” Harman said.

Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) renewed his call for hearings on the Plame case, releasing a letter to Government Reform Chairman Tom Davis (R-Va.) urging his GOP counterpart to agree to such hearings. Davis, though, has refused Waxman’s request on at least three other occasions, and Republican sources said he would likely continue to do so now.

Paul Kane and Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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