Fierce Debate Between Congressmen at ASNE Lunch

By: Joe Strupp

Two of the most powerful members of Congress used the American Society of Newspaper Editors luncheon Wednesday to fiercely debate several major political topics, from the future of embattled Attorney General Alberto Gonzales to the future of Iraq.

Looking to the 2008 race for president, Sen. Orrin Hatch had words of praise for former Gov. Mitt Romney while Rep. Rahm Emanuel called Sen. Barack Obama “Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King in one package.”

As hundreds of ASNE members lunched on chicken and rice, Columnist David Broder of The Washington Post led the discussion between Sen. Hatch (R-Utah) and Rep. Emanuel (D-Ill.). But while Broder offered up topics for debate, he mostly stayed out of the way as the two spared in what became, at times, a spirited debate.

First up was discussion of the future of Gonzales, who has come under fire following the controversial firing of eight U.S. attorneys late last year. As a ranking member of the Senate Judiciary Committee, which is holding hearings on the matter, Hatch quickly went to Gonzales’s defense, claiming accusations of wrongdoing are unfounded.

“We’ve had a run politically by those on the other side,” Hatch said. “Where there doesn’t appear to be any criminal conduct, but it certainly was not handled well.” Hatch went on to accuse Democrats of focusing too much on politics. “The Democrats in this process have identified politics very broadly and performance very narrowly,” he said. “I think it is kind of a tempest in a coffee cup. I don’t see any indication of any improper conduct, any criminal conduct.”

Hatch later cited Carol Lam, the U.S. attorney in San Diego who was among those fired, claiming she was dismissed because she did not aggressively follow an illegal immigration directive. “She wasn’t carrying out the requests of the president,” Hatch said. “She was not following through, even according to Sen. [Dianne] Feinstein, on smuggling immigration cases.”

Emanuel countered by citing a May 11, 2006 e-mail that called for Lam’s firing the same day that a news story indicated her probe that had led to the conviction of former Rep. Randy “Duke” Cunningham would be expanded to look at Rep. Jerry Lewis, another California Republican.

“They would like to say it was 93 names put into a hat and they pulled out seven,” Emanuel added. “If you believe that, I have a bridge over the Tigris River you can buy. They say job performance, which doesn’t hold up. I have given you the motivation.”

Emanuel went on to point out that many of the cases being handled by those fired attorneys have been setback up to two years. He said more information will not be known “unless we get folks up to testify.”

When asked about Gonzalez’s future, Hatch said he would likely not have to resign. “He is a very, very fine person,” Hatch said, adding that, in the case of internal Justice Department events, he is not expected “to understand every single nuance that goes on there.”

Emanuel stopped short of calling for Gonzalez to leave, saying that was up to the president. But he said “our interest is what is the motivation of the firings.”

Turning to Iraq, and the recent congressional vote on setting a deadline for withdrawal, Emanuel stressed that the legislation in no way reduces funding for the troops. “The president asked for more troops, more money, more time, more of the same,” he said. “We finally put some mettle in the president’s benchmarks.”

Emanuel went on to note that a timeline for withdrawal is needed because “the armed forces are stretched to the breaking point.”

Hatch cited General David Petraeus, a top U.S. Army commander in Iraq, who supports the president’s plan, saying the congressional approach “undermine the military in ways that are very, very serious.” Hatch said congress cannot be too quick to pull out too fast.

“It is nice to go with the polls, but we’re not here to go with the polls,” Hatch said. “What is the answer to what happens if we prematurely leave there and the terrorists take over this very important country, with very important oil reserves and they take over their oil reserves?”

Emanuel answered by contending “we didn’t do this by polls.” Hatch’s response: “Polls tell us to get out of there. I mean, give me a break.” During one of the few direct comments to the hundreds of editor’s assembled, Emanuel then made a direct request for support, saying about the war’s impact, “you know it in your own communities, on the mechanical side and the human capital side.”

After a short, mostly agreeable discussion on immigration, in which both men agreed not enough reform had occurred, the duo turned to the 2008 presidential race.

Hatch quickly dubbed Hillary Clinton the likely Democratic nominee, stating, “I think Hillary Clinton is going to be the nominee of the party. I think Barack Obama has been very effective, but the Clinton machine is much too powerful.” On the Republican side, Hatch was less sure, noting John McCain, Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney are all formidable. “The best thing that could happen for Rudy is to have Hillary be the nominee,” he said, noting Giuliani’s divisive stance among Republicans on some social issues.

But Hatch went on to support Romney as “the best manager of all of the Democrats and Republicans put together,” citing Romney’s successful stewardship of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics in Hatch’s home state.

He also urged others not to let Romney’s Mormon background be used unfairly against him. “There is no one in the Mormon church who would ever try to dictate politics,” he claimed, adding that “there is a real viciousness in politics. It would be helpful if some of you would help us find a way” out of it.

Emanuel said that Democrats have a chance to win the White House, but only if they use the power and popularity they recently achieved wisely, and could be in trouble as soon as nine months from now if issues like the war are not handled properly. “

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