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Among GOP Lawmakers, All's Quiet on the Libby Front

It's 8 p.m. on Capitol Hill as I type, and all is silent ... on the Republican side of the aisle, at least.

Late Monday afternoon, President Bush dropped a political bombshell, commuting the 30-month prison sentence given to I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby for lying to investigators and a grand jury investigating the leak of a CIA operative's identity. Conservative activists, predictably, rejoiced at the good news for Libby, an icon in their movement for his role as chief of staff to Vice President Cheney and ideological advocate for the Iraq war. Many conservatives believe Libby was being rail-roaded for something in which there was no underlying crime of leaking the name of Valerie Plame Wilson.

Democrats, no surprise, are vocally apoplectic. Away from the Capitol for the weeklong July 4th recess, they've been scrambling from all corners of the nation to issue releases condemning the president's action.

Sen. Richard Durbin (D-Ill.), No. 2 in the Senate leadership, wins the award for being first lawmaker to compare Libby to recently imprisoned Paris Hilton: "Even Paris Hilton had to go to jail," Durbin said in a statement.

Capitol Briefing emailed the office of notoriously media-savvy Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.) for comment and received back this withering attack in 1 minute: "As Independence Day nears, we are reminded that one of the principles our forefathers fought for was equal justice under the law. This commutation completely tramples on that principle."

But Republican leaders on the Hill have kept their mouths -- and their press aides -- silent. Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was the first leader to issue a statement, pro or con, on the matter among GOP leaders or ranking members of relevant committees.

Blunt, the conservative minority whip, defended the decision: "President Bush did the right thing today in commuting the prison term for Scooter Libby. The prison sentence was overly harsh and the punishment did not fit the crime. The sentence was based on charges that had nothing to do with the leak of the identity of a CIA operative."

At 8:35 p.m., Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) became the first member of the Senate GOP leadership to make a statement on the matter, defending the action but using Libby's pardon to take up another cause celebre among conservatives -- the case of Border Patrol agents Ignacio "Nacho" Ramos and Jose "Alonso" Compean, who were sentenced to 11 and 12 years, respectively, for shooting a fleeing drug runner and then covering it up. This is the equivalent of saying thanks, Mr. President, but that's not good enough: "I hope he will give the same consideration to the cases of Border Patrol agents Ramos and Compeon."

Privately, some GOP staff suggested that the Ramos-Compean issue, if cast alongside Libby's sentencing as an example of judicial overreach, could galvanize a conservative base that has grown somnolent from a divisive immigration fight last month. It would help, they said, if Bush also mounted a public battle in support of some of his stalled judicial nominees in the Senate.

But the list of GOP leaders not commenting, as of Monday evening, is long: Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who is traveling in Kentucky this week; House Minority Leader John Boehner (Ill.), who is traveling in Russia; Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the GOP whip; Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), chairman of conference, who is tasked with leading message operations; Rep. Adam Putnam (R-Fla.), Kyl's messaging counterpart who chairs the House conference. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), chairwoman of the GOP policy committee, has still not voiced an opinion on Libby's commutation.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, is also silent at this moment, as is Rep. Lamar Smith (R-Texas), Specter's counterpart on House Judiciary.

Here's a sampling of some of the comments from congressional Democrats:

* Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.): "The President's decision to commute Mr. Libby's sentence is disgraceful. Libby's conviction was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq War. Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone."

* House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.): "The President said he would hold accountable anyone involved in the Valerie Plame leak case. By his action today, the President shows his word is not to be believed. He has abandoned all sense of fairness when it comes to justice, he has failed to uphold the rule of law, and he has failed to hold his Administration accountable."

* House Judiciary Chairman John Conyers (D-Mich.): "Until now, it appeared that the President merely turned a blind eye to a high ranking Administration leaking classified information. The President's action today makes it clear that he condones such activity." -

* Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee: "True to form, the Bush administration won't be held accountable."

* House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.): "The charges against Mr. Libby were not insubstantial; a jury convicted him of lying to authorities and obstructing the investigation into the public disclosure of a CIA operative's identity."

By Paul Kane  |  July 3, 2007; 6:00 AM ET
Categories:  House , Senate  
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