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Inside Politics

Bush reaches out to GOP lawmakers

Congress seeks accountability on abuse scandal

From John King
CNN Washington Bureau

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President Bush speaks Thursday at a high school gathering in Parkersburg, West Virginia, before meeting with House Republicans on Iraq policy.
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- President Bush invited a group of House Republicans to the White House on Thursday as part of a newly aggressive effort to consult with Congress on Iraq policy and to try to quiet concerns raised by the prisoner abuse scandal.

"I think the fever has broken on this," a key Republican leadership aide said in advance of the afternoon White House meeting.

Several senior administration officials acknowledged that some Republicans were joining Democrats in suggesting that accountability for the Iraqi prisoner abuse scandal should reach into the Pentagon's senior leadership.

But one official said it was a "small but vocal" group; a second said it was just a few GOP lawmakers with "Beltway disease."

Both of these administration officials said there were no plans for any shakeup at the Pentagon, though they did caution that with the investigations continuing, it remained an uncertain political environment.

The administration officials and Republican congressional aides increasingly believe that Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's job is secure.

On Capitol Hill, top Republicans have said they believe Rumsfeld helped his case by traveling to Iraq on Thursday to visit the Abu Ghraib prison -- the focus of the abuse scandal -- and deliver a pep talk to U.S. troops. (Rumsfeld visits Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison)

Some lawmakers have directed criticism at Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone.

Some Republicans are privately making the case that if Rumsfeld is to keep his job, then one of his senior deputies -- possibly Cambone -- should resign for encouraging the use of military police officers to help military intelligence units at the Abu Ghraib prison.

But administration officials say there is no pressure from the White House for leadership changes at the Pentagon, and one senior official was adamant that there would be no changes, barring a major new development.

At the White House and in GOP leadership circles in Congress, officials suggested that early Democratic calls for Rumsfeld's resignation helped rally Republicans.

Support came even from some GOP lawmakers who are privately quite critical of how the White House handled the prisoner abuse scandal and worried about its overall Iraq policy.

Also, these sources said the horrific beheading of American Nicholas Berg appears to have had an impact on the Washington political climate.

"It helped put some things in perspective for some members," the House GOP leadership aide said.

The Bush meeting with the small group of House Republicans came a day after the president met with the chairmen and ranking members of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the House International Relations Committee.

Administration and Bush campaign officials acknowledge a deterioration in the president's political standing in recent days, and attribute the bulk of the slip to the prisoner abuse scandal.

"Incumbents are affected by what people see and hear, and this is not a pretty time," a Bush political adviser said.

But this adviser and other Bush loyalists said they believed Rumsfeld's visit to Iraq, and the beginning of military justice proceedings against some of the U.S. soldiers accused of abusing Iraqi prisoners would, as the political adviser put it, "change the picture a bit."

In this environment of pressure, Cambone is at at the intersection of several lines of complaint: He is close to Rumsfeld; he is the senior civilian in charge of military intelligence matters; and he has antagonized some members of Congress with his views on the scandal.

Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, who wrote the report on the situation at Abu Ghraib, stood by his findings that military police working at Iraqi jails should not have had a role in conditioning prisoners for intelligence interrogations. (Taguba testifies; transcript of Taguba opening statement)

But Cambone, seated next to Taguba at Tuesday's Senate hearing, said it was critical for the jailers to work closely with military intelligence officials. Some in Congress believe this cooperation fostered the climate of abuse, although Taguba said the soldiers should have known they were under orders to operate within the Geneva Conventions.

"How do you expect the MPs to get it straight if we have a difference between the two of you?" Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Massachusetts, asked during the hearing.

The administration sources said several Republicans also have relayed concerns about Cambone's testimony to the White House and others in the administration.


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