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Jim VandeHei
Washington Post White House Reporter
Friday, February 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 Jim VandeHei was online Friday, Feb. 3, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the latest in political news.

VIDEO: VandeHei on Boehner

The transcript follows.

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Jim VandeHei: Welcome to the Friday episode of the Post political chat. We have a new majority leader who is forcing TV anchors to brush up on his pronunciation (it's Boehner, as in Bay-ner, an international uproar over cartoons and a lot of Post-SOTU fallout to chew over.

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Denver, Colo.: So will the GOP leadership change be sufficient to convince voters that everything's fine now?

How are the odds viewed today in D.C. that the GOP will lose the House?

Jim VandeHei: I can not fathom the mere selection of majority leader, which is big deal inside the beltway but a yawner on the outside, will shift political dynamics. It shows a very narrow majority want some change (remember Blunt fell only six votes shy of victory on the first ballot.). This could portend some lobbying and spending rules changes. But the bigger problem for the GOP is Jack Abramoff. His money-for-favors scandal will unfold, slowly, over the next ten months and serve as a constant reminder of the very thing people don't like about Washington. Republicans are in power, so they will probably pay a price.

Losing control of the House is another question. The system is rigged. Basically both parties have drawn congressional districts in recent decades to protect incumbents and shrink the number of truly competitive races. There are probably only 40 up for grabs and slightly less that both sides think could change hands. Basically, Democrats would have to win about 75 percent of those to win back the House. Possible but not highly likely.

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New Madrid, Mo.: Jim, I really like to see you on the political shows. I believe you tell us the truth. My question, why are the Democrats not raising more of an outcry about the spying and the Abramoff scandal?

Jim VandeHei: I love you, man. as for your question, I think democrats are making a big deal out of both issues. There is some hesitation about taking Bush on politically over the spying program, but not on the policy. Democrats are basically building their election strategy on the Abramoff scandal.

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Rolla, Mo.: In looking at the latest request for funding operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, is it appropriate to lump these two different wars together? I would like the reporting to reflect the breakdown of the $120 billion between the two. There are many of us out here who believe Afghanistan was the right war, yet unfinished, but that Iraq was a fraudulent war from the beginning (or others now coming to the conclusion that it's not worth it).

Jim VandeHei: That's for policymakers to decide. These special appropriations are typically done as lumps sums, one vote on one big package. Even Democrats who oppose the war are unlikely to force the monies to be split - or oppose money for the troops for that matter. One thing to consider is we now have spent, with this new request, almost a half trillion dollars on the wars. Even by Washington standards, that is a ton of cash.

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Rockville, Md.: Why isn't redrawing Congressional district lines, obviously done to help either party garner more votes, illegal?

Jim VandeHei: the courts have weighed in on the process many times, but mostly to make sure they are not discriminatory. States have the power to draw the districts basically as they see fit as long as they are not overtly discriminatory. There is a lot of fascinating technology out there that would allow states to makes the process fair and the districts more representative. But politicians like power.

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Arlington, Va.: How is the scheduling of the Scooter Libby trial going to affect the Republicans as they try to keep control of Congress this fall?

Jim VandeHei: I think as political observers we sometime hyperventilate about the politics of interesting and important stories. I do not think the Libby trial be a huge issue in house and senate races other than to reinforce the democratic theme that Republicans are abusing power.

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Egg Harbor, N.J.: At yesterday's Intelligence hearing, Senator Feingold suggested that the President was equally guilty of exposing the NSA surveillance story by talking about it in the SOTU speech. Since Feingold usually comes across as intelligent and well-prepared, why would he use this ridiculous comparison? No one on the planet believes that Bush would have mentioned were it not for the Times' revelation on the day of the Patriot Act vote.

Jim VandeHei: It was the Times that exposed it (with the help of government and nongovernment officials). Bush said it was shameful but made a quick decision to defend it once it was public.

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Rockville, Md.: Why'd Bush include the line on the line-item veto? Has he and his administration forgotten that line-item veto was ruled unconstitutional under the Clinton administration?

Jim VandeHei: it was an odd choice. most president say they want it. But the courts and congress have said it could or would be wrong. it was the Bush way of saying I am doing everything I can to keep these big-spenders in check. the government is 25 percent bigger since bush took over

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Pittsburgh, Pa.: Hello and thank you for taking questions. The most fascinating aspect for me of the Abramoff scandal is the possible connection to the mob-style hit of SunCruz partner Gus Boulis. Your paper has done a great job reporting on it. Will we be hearing more about this as that trial unfolds? And will the Florida fraud charges against Abramoff and his partner Kidan in the SunCruz affair be a big deal on the national political scene?

Jim VandeHei: like I wrote before, I think the entire scandal will be a huge deal over the next year and beyond. maybe the web god at dot.com can post a link to the paper's coverage of the scandal.

washingtonpost.com: Investigating Abramoff -- Special Report

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Washington, D.C.: Has anyone ever asked Bush how he feels that the way he has lead and decisions he has made have caused the country to split radically into groups that are vehemently against each other and if he is okay with that outcome as long as the people that now can't stand each other are safe?

Jim VandeHei: we have. he typically laments the state of Washington discourse and blames partisanship. It is unclear how much he fails the White House is to blame. There is no doubt Bush benefited from the Rove strategy to politicize the war in 2002 and 2004. That strategy went a long way in turning democrats against Bush in a very personal way. They felt Max Cleland, who lost limbs in the military, was unfairly painted as a softie on national security issues, which contributed to his defeat in the 2002 Georgia Senate defeat.

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Atlanta, Ga.: Why has the national media, including The Post, not pushed the White House to disclose, under the Freedom of Information Act, the meetings the White House had with Abramoff? Doesn't the public how the right to know who is buying off our elected corrupublicans?

Jim VandeHei: we and others are working on that.

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Rockville, Md.: Jim,

I had heard that in the first ballot for GOP Majority Leader, they actually counted more votes than they had House Republicans, yet the first ballot results given at the bottom of the article add up to only 229 (with 231 Republicans). Is what I heard just a wrong rumor?

Jim VandeHei: The first vote did come up with more votes than members presents. they did not release that tally. Instead they did a re-vote.

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Incredul, US: Hi Jim,

Wasn't Boehner the guy who was walking around on the House floor giving out $500 checks from Tobacco lobbyists to fellow Republicans? Isn't this the same guy running the 'K-Street Cabinet? I am floored at the chutzpah of the Republicans who have no shame in putting up yet another corrupt politician - and also that no one in the media seems to be pointing this out.

Thanks.

Jim VandeHei: as we have written on the pages of the post, Boehner might seem as odd figure of a reform candidate. He is very tight with lobbyists, including Big Tobacco, used their plans, thrown notoriously rowdy party/fundraisers and been a key player in leadership since 1994. One reason he won, I think, is he promised change, but not too much change. If Blunt had won the headline would have read: DeLay protege wins; members reject change. So I think the GOP is happy with the short-term perception of this.

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Boston, Mass.: I just want to note that there's no hesitation by Sen. Feingold to take on the president on spying; at Dailykos.com he's excoriated Bush for a "pre-1776 mentality", saying "Stop the power grab, stop the politics, stop breaking the law."

I'd love to see some coverage of his statement in The Post...

Jim VandeHei: You are right. He was the lone senator to vote against Patriot Act extension last night, his latest stand against government spying.

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Boston, Mass.: About the unconstitutionality of the line-item veto -- don't forget there's two new people on the Supreme Court....

Jim VandeHei: true

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Arlington, Va.: The problem with D.C.'s question and those on the left is there constant harping that Bush's decisions have caused the country to split and fracture politically like no other time in our nation's history.

Now take aside the whole illogical presumption of that question. Clinton never got 50% of the vote but the left can't say that because it doesn't work with their talking points. A look at the last 30 years of presidential elections shows an overwhelming history of relatively close votes (percentage basis)....excluding Reagan whooping of Mondale.

All that aside, until tens of thousands of Americans are shooting and killing each other on a field of battle like the Civil War perhaps those who ask such inane questions should go back to Kos and the other wacko Web sites.

Jim VandeHei: a response to my response.

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Rochester, N.Y.: The Post had a great story this morning on an investigation of the Inspector General of NASA. Does this have the potential to be a major story? It seems to me that if indeed he ignored warnings about dangers with the ill-fated Columbia launch that could really resonate with voters, in the same way that FEMA's mismanagement of Katrina did. Any thoughts?

Jim VandeHei: it was a great story. the political implications are unclear, but hopefully we can provide a link to the story so readers can decide. thanks

washingtonpost.com: NASA's Inspector General Probed

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Boston, Mass.: Do you think Rove had a hand in Boehner's victory? Barry Jackson is their direct conduit...

Jim VandeHei: Karl is powerful, but not that powerful. These elections are decided member to member, and no one would much care what Rove would have to say on an internal leadership decision. It is true Barry Jackson is a top Rove deputy and a longtime top adviser to Boehner. This will make Jackson more of a player, I presume.

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Rochester, N.Y.: Two quick questions:

(1) What do you think the odds are that Gonzales will be forced to appoint a special prosecutor for the Abramoff mess? It seems a bit fishy as is, with Noel Hillman being taken off the case and recess appointee (and alleged friend of the DeLay defense team) Alice Fisher the big boss of the operation.

(2) The AP just reported that Libby won't go to trial until January 2007 -- after the midterms. Do you think that is significant?

Jim VandeHei: I have not confirmed the date. But I presume it is true. Again, not sure its a big issue for members of Congress. But I am sure Republicans would rather not have to deal with a trial right before voters vote.

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Washington, D.C.: You said he has: "thrown notoriously rowdy party/fundraisers" Can you provide a link to that story? I'm intrigued.

Jim VandeHei: no link. He throws what are known as Boehner beach parties. They are fundraisers and use to be one of the hottest tickets on the GOP fundraising circuit.

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Bethesda, Md.: Can someone please rename the 9th Ward of New Orleans after a Republican Senator's wife so we can get an "earmark" to restore the place and bring the residents back home? If Elaine Chao was the professional we thought she was, wouldn't she turn down an auditorium named in her honor that was built on her husband Senator Mitch McConnell's congressional seniority, political pork, and ethical (shall we say to be polite)"compromises"? It's just plain wrong to use $14.2 Million in federal taxpayer money to build a huge library and name the library auditorium after your wife

Jim VandeHei: that is an amazing item. It was in the paper today. can we link to it? It shows the power of the earmark and illustrates why many lawmakers and government types believe the process should be curtailed if not outlawed.

washingtonpost.com: In the Loop

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Changing the subject a bit: You mentioned the cartoon controversy in the opening statements. I think its really sad situation. I mean of course, I don't condone violence and support freedom of speech, but it seems these newspapers are printing these cartoons to be insensitive. I don't think you'd have this situation in the U.S. I think generally people here are more considerate of what others find sacred. Your thoughts?

Jim VandeHei: I am a huge believer in the freedom of speech but obviously some topics like making fun of another person's religion are explosive politically. Tom Toles at our paper is getting hammered by the US military for making fun of Rumsfeld and using a wounded soldier with no limbs to make his point. It his Tom's opinion. It was on an Opinion Page. That is how the process works.

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FT Detrick, Md.: I guess you and your paper are convinced that Disabled Vets will forget the Toles cartoon. Let me assure you we will not. Your paper crossed the line on the 29th of January. None of us who have sacrificed our bodies and our welfare in the defense of freedom - and by extension in the defense of Mr. Toles right to publish his reprehensible cartoon - will ever be able to just let this fade away. We will also hold the Democratic Party accountable for their lack of outrage on this subject.

Jim VandeHei: posting this so you can get a sampling of the questions and comments I am getting.

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Maryland: Would The Post publish cartoons that might offend Muslims? Does The Post Fear Muslim backlash more than possible backlash from cartoons that target Jews and Christians?

Jim VandeHei: you have to ask the editorial page.

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Anonymous: The Toles cartoon is critical of the government and the planning of the war, NOT of soldiers. It CLEARLY laments the way our brave men and women in uniform are being used. It is powerful and respectful.

Jim VandeHei: one more posting

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Anonymous: Jim

Are you a Vet? Have you ever been in combat? Did you ever have someone die under your command? How can you be so cavalier about a Mr. Toles reprehensible depiction of a wounded Vet?

Jim VandeHei: I was not in the military. My brother-in-law, Clay, is in the Army, however, served one tour in Iraq and will soon go back for another.

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Re: Toles Cartoon: Just a wee different perspective from our military family-- Toles isn't getting hammered by the military. He's getting hammered by the military brass at whom the cartoon was aimed. Mr. Rumsfeld claims that the Army isn't stretched or broken but merely battle hardened. I think it is obvious this is just more double-speak from the Secretary.

Jim VandeHei: you are right. It was the joint chiefs who all signed a letter to our editor complaining.

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Washington, D.C.: A complete change of topic: in this extremely polarized atmosphere, do you have any intimation as to whom the GOP will settle on for 2008? Profile wise, if not a name? Especially in view of the fact that the Dems are poised to make significant gains in the midterm election, even without the near-term future White House bobbles, scandals, and bad decisions that are are as inevitable as, well, global warming?

Jim VandeHei: All depends on the political environment. I think strong national security credentials are an absolute must. So does Hillary Clinton, who has spent the past few years voting in favor of strong military action. I think she will run. I also think there is a big segment of America and the Democratic Party who wants someone else. Look for the DC insiders to promote a southern centrist like Mark Warner. Until Democrats can win in the South, winning prez elections will be very hard. On GOP side, McCain looks like the favorite of many GOPers. Strong on defense, independent, seen as a reformer. But if I Iraq turns out to be a disaster it could sink his candidacy. He has been very staunch supporter of Bush on the war.

and this concludes our political chat. have a great weekend.

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