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Special Report

'Special Report' Panel on Pres. Bush's Iraq Progress Report and the House Vote That Shot Down the Colombia Free Trade Deal

This is a rush transcript of "Special Report With Brit Hume" from April 10 2008. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES OF AMERICA: While this war is difficult, it is not endless. And we expect that as conditions on the ground continue to improve, they will permit us to continue the policy of return on success.

SEN. HARRY REID, SENATE MAJORITY LEADER, (D) NEVADA: The president still doesn't understand that America's limited resources cannot support this endless war that he's gotten us involved in. His announcement, while some look to as a great victory, is, I say, two steps backwards, and one step forward.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BRIT HUME, HOST: Some thoughts on this, the week of David Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker's report, first from Gerald Seib, Assistant Managing Editor of The Wall Street Journal — Jerry, welcome; it's nice to have you — Juan Williams, Senior Correspondent of National Public Radio, and Bill Sammon, Senior White House Correspondent of The Washington Examiner.

Let's look at this report this week on the state of play in Iraq in political terms, both as to what happens in Washington now and what happens at the election — Jerry, you thoughts?

JERRY SEIB, EDITOR, THE WALL STREET JOURNAL: I think there is a big change in the politics of Iraq in the last couple of weeks. It looked a few months ago as if we might go through this campaign year in a situation in which violence was declining in Iraq and troop levels were declining.

Well, it doesn't look like either of those things will hold right now. So you have the partisan divide over Iraq reemerging. You have Democrats showing in the last week on the Hill that they really do still want a dead drop troop withdrawal date set, and you have Republicans saying, essentially, that's a disaster.

The divide is back, and I think it is much wider than it looked like it would be just a couple of weeks ago.

BILL SAMMON, SENIOR WHITE HOUSE CORRESPONDENT, WASHINGTON EXAMINER: I think what happened today and over the last two days is that it finally became official that Bush is going to get his way onto issue of troop levels in Iraq.

I think there was some doubt after the Democrats took over in '06 congress. There was a lot of fear in the White House that there would be forced troop reduction, there would be a timetable legislated.

Dozens of measures were put forward, and all of them failed. Bush came out in September and said, well, you know, this surge is just getting going. Let's see how it works out.

And here we are, he's saying we're going to go into the summer, and then a 45-day pause, which takes us to about seven weeks before the election. We're going to go the rest of this year and into the next presidency with over 100,000 troops.

HUME: but it did appear for a time as if the downturn in violence and the political progress that has been made might even end up taking the war partly, if not most of the way, off the table in the general election. That appears less likely now, Juan?

JUAN WILLIAMS, FOX NEWS CONTRIBUTOR: I think so. That's what you just heard from both of these gentlemen, is that it is back in center stage.

And it is back in the center stage in an interesting way. The Democrats frame it this way, that the president is not going to leave it, whatever the resolution is, to the next president, be it John McCain, Barack Obama, or Hillary Clinton — that he is basically saying I am going to hold to my position that we remain firm and a strong presence in Iraq for the entirety of my time here in office.

And buying into the notion of freezing even the withdrawal of troops, the drawdown, I think, suggests that there's just no energy in this for him. He doesn't see any need politically to satisfy anyone. He's not trying to help John McCain, if you might perceive it that way, that John McCain would be helped by quieting this issue and saying that the U.S. is involved in some sort of planned exit. He's not doing it.

HUME: General Petraeus said to me today in an interview that I did with him that even during that 45-day period it might be possible to make the calculation that it would be possible to continue to resume the troop withdrawals.

If that were to happen, and one could presume what the conditions would have to be like if it did happen, would that change the equation back, Jerry?

SEIB: I think a little bit.

And there is an interesting footnote to what General Petraeus said today, which is that Defense Secretary Gates said that, subsequently, I think we still might have some withdrawals in the fall.

In other words, when you get past this 45 days, you go through July, you go through a 45-day pause, he was holding out explicitly today the possibility of troop withdrawals commencing in the fall. Obviously, that means in the campaign season, in the election season.

The question in my mind is would that make any difference, or do voters' attitudes about what's happening in Iraq get set before you get to November or October?

WILLIAMS: Let me just add one point here. What you heard Petraeus say to Hume — Brit to us — was that it's stretching the military. You can imagine Democrats are now going to use that as a pivot point in making the argument.

And, secondly, they're going to make the financial case, which I think is growing on Capitol Hill these days, that why aren't the Iraqis, who are sitting on all this oil as oil prices rise, contributing more? Why are we putting out $100 billion a year?

Again, these are different arguments, but they add —

HUME: Because the other arguments have failed, haven't they.

WILLIAMS: The fact is, things were getting quieter.

HUME: The benchmarks — 12 of 18 are said now to — .

WILLIAMS: I have heard people argue the benchmarks both ways.

SAMMON: These are the same Democrats who argued no war for oil, and so now they're turning around and saying we ought to take that oil and pay for our war.

WILLIAMS: Wait a second — didn't Vice President Cheney say once we were in that in fact much of the cost of the war could be paid by the profits from the oil?

SAMMON: The other thing is, I think that Bush, maybe six or seven weeks before the election, could say I have had this reassessment period of 45 days. It looks like we could start to withdraw going into next year. That might help McCain.

HUME: Let me ask this question — there was a recent poll in which the position articulated certainly by Barack Obama and perhaps even more emphatically now by Hillary Clinton, which was a troop withdrawal moving forward regardless of conditions. That got 18 percent approval.

It's hard to imagine that she can get away from that view or he can either. How does that play out in the fall against a guy who says look, we can win, we just have to hang in there?

SEIB: I think let's have a certain withdrawal no matter what is a position that plays better when violence does look as if it's declining. I think it's a harder position in some ways when violence is on the uptick.

You know, the John McCain calculation in all this is a little different. The McCain view is it doesn't matter how many troops are there or how long, what matters is what kind of casualties are being taken by Americans. That's the political indicator that's sensitive.

That may be true — 140,000, 130,000, 100,000 may matter less to voters than whether Americans are really dying.

HUME: The truth of the matter is that we have troops all over the world and most people don't even know it because there are no casualties being taken.

When we come back we will talk about the Colombia free trade deal and the House vote that iced it. That's next.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

REP. NANCY PELOSI, (D) SPEAKER OF THE HOUSE: This isn't about ending anything. It's about having a timetable that respects the concerns, the aspirations, the challenges faced by the American people. We are the people's House. Their timetable should be our timetable.

REP. KEVIN BRADY, (R) TEXAS: Who could imagine that this Congress would send a signal to the world that we are not just an unreliable leader in trade, we are an unreliable negotiator in trade. It is embarrassing and it is dangerous, and it will cost America jobs.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

HUME: What are those two people arguing over? They're arguing over a free trade agreement with Colombia, which is a strong American ally in this hemisphere, and a neighbor, and not a friendly neighbor, of Hugo Chavez. There you can see the location of Colombia cheek by jowl with Venezuela down there.

And the administration had argued that this was a good deal for the United States because tariffs are now a lot higher on American goods going into Colombia than they are on Colombian goods coming into the United States.

Nonetheless, labor does not want this deal, and there is criticism of the way labor unions and their leaders are treated in Colombia. And that was all in this witch's brew that led to this being blocked today, and the rules under which trade deals are considered being changed by the House at Nancy Pelosi's instigation.

How does this play out politically, Bill?

SAMMON: The Republicans are calling this rule change the "Hugo Chavez rule," because the argument is that it drives Colombia closer to Hugo Chavez. And Colombia is an ally of ours. The Democrats are always complaining that the Bush administration is alienating our allies. This is clearly alienating an ally by shafting Colombia and backing out of this agreement.

I call it more like the "nuclear option," because that's what the Democrats call the Republican threat to change the rules back when they were trying to get judges through.

HUME: In the Senate.

SAMMON: And the press went crazy, went ballistic — "you can't change the rules!" And yet that is exactly what Nancy Pelosi did. It will have wide-ranging ramifications to other allies, South Korea; we having other trade agreements.

And suddenly we are telling all the countries in the world, you can't really trust us to do a fast track authority on a trade deal, because we may just decide we don't want to do the trade deal with you.

WILLIAMS: The Democrats today were saying it is not that the deal is dead. It gives us more time. We could put in more protections for labor, specifically — also environmental possibilities.

But their argument is that President Bush forced this thing, that he should have been dealing with them to allow them to put in place labor protections that would have been — so that it would have been certain to pass on the Hill, and that he didn't do this. He felt that he had the political advantage and, therefore, he forced it and he lost.

HUME: He must have thought, wouldn't you think Juan, that he had the votes. If it came to a vote, that it would pass —

WILLIAMS: Yes. But the Democrats would be shamed, although there were some Republicans who voted against it, I think six Republicans.

SEIB: That's the play here by the Democrats. You don't have to vote for the treaty and you don't have to vote against the treaty. It parks it so that doesn't have to happen, and a lot of Democrats who are in marginal Democratic districts, places that probably do support free trade, don't have to make that choice.

HUME: Because?

SEIB: Because of the procedures, the parliamentary maneuver the Democrats used, said, essentially, we suspend the rules, the fast track, which said you had to vote in 90 days after the president sent it up.

HUME: Up or down.

SEIB: Up or down. We set that aside. We just suspend those rules. It can sit on the sideline for as long as possible.

And that means that if Colombia is on the sired lines, it means a pending deal with South Korea and one with Panama are also on the sidelines. So I think this is a maneuver by the Democrats to get those trade deals, all of which are opposed by the unions, none of which are easy votes for some Democrats, off the table for the rest of this year. That's what this is about.

WILLIAMS: It just strikes me thought, looking back to what happened in Ohio, where you had Obama and Clinton coming out and just criticizing NAFTA and pretending they had nothing to do with it.

HUME: The North American Free Trade Agreement.

WILLIAMS: Yes, and somehow suggesting — we were talking earlier — NAFTA is responsible for the decline of blue collar industries in the Midwest. This is a fabrication.

SAMMON: Republicans were hoping for a vote on this because they were going to use it to their advantage no matter which way it went. Obviously if they won the vote that would be good, and if they lost the vote, they would hold that against Democrats because the deal would remove all the tariffs from our experts.

HUME: So your view is that this is a political winner for the Republicans in the fall?

SAMMON: I think this thing will backfire on Pelosi.

HUME: What do you think?

WILLIAMS: Obviously, in the short run for Democrats, they can play to the union labor base, which has political power. But I must say it has united the "Wall Street Journal" and "The Washington Post" to say "Democrats to Colombia: drop dead."

HUME: Quickly, Jerry.

SEIB: Smart thing for the Democrats to do, maybe not the right thing, as it will have long-term implications, as Bill said.

HUME: Thank you all.

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