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Peter Baker
Washington Post White House Reporter
Tuesday, January 3, 2006; 11:00 AM

Don't want to miss out on the latest buzz in politics? Start each day at wonk central: The Post Politics Hour. Join in each weekday morning at 11 a.m. as a member of The Washington Post's team of White House and Congressional reporters answers questions about the latest in buzz in Washington and The Post's coverage of political news.

Washington Post White House reporter Peter Baker was online Tuesday, Jan. 3, at 11 a.m. ET .

The transcript follows.

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Peter Baker: Good morning, everyone. Happy New Year. Welcome to our first Post politics chat of 2006, a year that if anything promises to be even more interesting for politics junkies than 2005. Sorry for the late start, but after some technical difficulties we're ready to get started. So here we go.

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Astoria, N.Y.: Wow, Abramoff pleads guilty. I know this effects a lot of people on both sides, but can you tell me perhaps the three most nervous people today? Will it effect Republicans more? Thanks.

Peter Baker: Wow is right. This is a certifiable big deal. The Abramoff case has its tentacles in a lot of places, and there are no doubt some very nervous people today on Capitol Hill. While I haven't been the reporter on this, it seems to me that Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and a handful of other congressmen already know that they're under the microscope. Obviously we don't know the scope of what Abramoff could tell authorities, but they must think it's something worthwhile to cut a deal with someone at the heart of so many allegations.

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Tallahassee, Fla.: What sort of implications do you think Jack Abramoff's plea deal will have on the 2006 mid term elections? Who is likely to be caught in the cross hairs?

Peter Baker: It's too early to say if it will have electoral implications. Obviously if he turns over information to prosecutors that leads to actions against members of Congress, that could have some impact. Right now Democrats are sharpening the knives to try to make 2006 about what they will call a corrupt Republican majority, much like the Republicans did to them in 1994. But it depends how deep this goes and whether the public is paying attention and genuinely outraged, or simply decides they politicians of all stripes.

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Arlington, Va.: What is the feeling on the Hill with Abramoff taking a plea deal? Heard somewhere that there may be 12 possible indictments (with a probable of 7). Also, did Abramoff dispense equally to Democrats? It's sorta been reported both ways, although it seems to me he was mainly a Republican. Thanks for doing these chats!

Peter Baker: My understanding is he did give money to Democrats, but not in the same proportion as Republicans. If some Democrats do get caught up in this in a big way, of course, that will undercut their ability to use this politically. But Abramoff's extensive ties to DeLay's circle identifies him fairly prominently in a public sense with the Republican leadership.

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Starkville, Miss.: Is Jack Abramoff a big fish in the world of government corruption, or is he just one of many?

Peter Baker: That's an excellent question -- is he typical or an aberration? Obviously a lot of people hope he's the extreme version of what's out there, but it may just be a matter of degree. The world of money and politics is just filled with gray areas that have allowed people to bend or break the rules in spirit if not in letter on a routine basis. Take a look at the story by Jeff Birnbaum and Tom Edsall the other day about the BellSouth report listing all the congressmen and staffers they've given gifts to beyond the official limits -- limits evidently that aren't enforced in any meaningful way. What will be interesting to see is if this leads to any broader changes in the system. I'm not sure I would bet on that in one of those casinos Abramoff's clients run.

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washingtonpost.com: Hill Gift Limits Often Exceeded, Lobbyists' Records Show , ( Post, Dec. 31, 2005 )

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Portland, Ore.: Hi Peter,

With the Alito hearings coming up, how do you see his chances for confirmation? How likely is a filibuster?

Based on what I've read, I'd say he'll be confirmed, (sans a major gaffe by him), although by a lesser margin than Roberts, and with a tougher grilling by the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Thanks.

Peter Baker: Hard to say for sure, but that sounds like a reasonable prediction at this point. Alito has certainly generated more vigorous opposition from the left than Roberts did, but at the moment we haven't seen indications that the Democrats will really filibuster him. The hearings starting next week could change that dynamic, though I wouldn't expect it. One interesting X factor -- he'll certainly be grilled on his views of executive power and Fourth Amendment guarantees against warrantless searches and seizures in light of the revelations about the secret NSA domestic surveillance program.

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Milwaukee, Wis.: Bush says he is tough on national security, but he knew for a year from the NYT's that there was a leak at NSA. Has The Post tried to figure out why Bush waited for a year to order an investigating into this leak?

Peter Baker: That's a good point. Hadn't thought of it that way. I suppose they might say it wasn't damaging national security as long as it wasn't public. (One might ask how it's damaging it now if you assume that terrorists probably thought their phones could be bugged already and probably weren't counting on the FISA court process to protect them; when we've asked that question, officials say just discussing the program makes the terrorists think about it more.) For the record, by the way, Bush has said he did not order a leak investigation but the Justice Department says it started one as a matter of policy.

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Brooklyn, N.Y.: Did you get any flak from the White House about your question to the President about unchecked powers?

Peter Baker: No, though I did hear from supporters of his who weren't happy with the question.

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Greeneville, Tenn.: Sir, how will President Bush explain his "innocent" declaration on behalf of DeLay?

Peter Baker: It's pretty unusual for a president to give such a declaration about someone facing criminal charges for fear of prejudicing a case. Remember, while DeLay so far hasn't been formally accused of wrongdoing in the Abramoff case, he does go to trial soon in Texas on unrelated charges stemming from campaign finances. Bush and the White House have refused to discuss the CIA leak case on the grounds that it's a pending case but he ventured his opinion on DeLay. The White House later tried to say the president only meant that every defendant is innocent until proven guilty, but Bush's original comments seemed to go beyond that.

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Hamilton, N.Y.: I still think that The Post and other in the MSM need to really sniff out this story. Abramoff had a huge slush fund that was being spread all over the place to create the Republican majority - Grover Norquist, Ralph Reed, Tom DeLay, Bob Ney and others had access to a unaccounted for money. IMO we still have not seen how this really worked and who developed this plan -- after all Abramoff was a leader of the College Republicans and this is a scenario that was many years in the making.

Peter Baker: Well, we have a string of investigative reporters, including Susan Schmidt, James Grimaldi and Jeff Smith, working on various aspects of these cases, and believe me they want nothing more to sniff out more of the story. This is a good reminder, though, that for all the blogosphere critique, the mainstream media still serves quite an important function. We learned much of what we know today about Abramoff from the dogged and determined reporting of these journalists.

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New York, N.Y.: Re: Justice investigation of NSA leak.

"Bush has said he did not order a leak investigation but the Justice Department says it started one as a matter of policy."

I thought the usual process was for an agency to request Justice investigate a leak. Justice doesn't often initiate these things on it's own, does it?

Peter Baker: Right, that's my understanding as well. The policy I referenced was that -- the agency initiates a request and Justice follows up. In theory, at least, the White House is not involved.

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New York, N.Y.: Just a comment, Mr. Baker. I can't believe how lucky we are to have these political chats! I was in withdrawal during the break between holidays.

Peter Baker: Well, thanks very much. That's very kind. I'm still partial to the eggnog, myself...

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Ellicott City, Md.: In reference to the warrentless searches, do you see this story exploding or going away? Seems to me that the administration is trying to claim that they were not really listening in unless they heard something they cared about then they would listen closer. Is this the case, does this make sense (listening but not listening)?

Peter Baker: We're still learning the nature and scope of the program. In general, the White House thinks this is actually a political winner for them, that most Americans won't really care and assume that it's only bad guys who are being tapped and want the president to be as aggressive as he needs to be to stop another 9/11. But many on the Hill are still interested in learning more about this and Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) has promised to hold hearings before the Judiciary Committee. So stay tuned.

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New York, N.Y.: John McCain seems largely free of any of the Bush administration "fallout" this past year. It looks like he could be a strong Republican presidential candidate in 2008. However, many pundits continue to argue that McCain is disliked by key elements of the Republican Party, and that he can't win the nomination. What's your thought of McCain's future?

Peter Baker: He's had an interesting year and you could argue he's doing more to drive the discussion in Congress than any other single member, certainly outside the leadership. He helped forge the Gang of 14 compromise on federal judges and he forced the White House to swallow legislation banning cruel and inhuman treatment of prisoners. At the same time, he's been careful to stay strongly behind Bush on the Iraq war and has avoided doing things to alienate the conservative base that will play the key role in the primaries in 2008 -- trying to defuse the opposition 'if those key elements you mention. By most accounts, he's the emerging frontrunner on the Republican side, at least for now.

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Rochester, N.Y.: In reference to the question you were just asked about hearing from the president about a "tough question", does it ever go through your mind as a reporter that you'll take a lot of flak from one side or the other for asking a certain question? If so, does that affect what sort of questions you end up choosing to ask?

Peter Baker: I guess it wouldn't be honest to say it doesn't go through your mind, but frankly you're going to catch flak from one side or the other no matter what you ask (or what you write). If you don't, then you've probably wasted a question. I have some regular email correspondents, some on the left, some on the right, who routinely make sure to tell me exactly where I've gone wrong -- too hard on the president, too easy on him, biased against him, shilling for him. I have a lot of respect for the ones who offer honest critiques, but you can assume that on any given day, a lot of folks out there are angry at you. And so all you can do is listen to the constructive criticism, ignore the screamers and try to screen out the background noise to come up the most salient question for the moment you're given the opportunity to ask it.

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Peter Baker: Amazing how fast the time flies, in 2006 as well as 2005. Thanks for all the great questions. Sorry not to get to more. Here's to a fun new year in politics.

All best,

Peter

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