Vice President Dick Cheney, often considered the hidden power behind the White House throne, is increasingly out in the open and on the defensive.
He's scheduled to testify at the perjury trial of his former top aide; congressional Democrats want to probe his role in the White House; and his unprecedented clout may be waning. Once widely considered a source of wisdom and experience in the White House, the vice president has become a frequent target of criticism.
On Wednesday, a testy Cheney sparred with CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer over Iraq and al-Qaida and insisted that Bush administration policies have succeeded in both cases. While he's acknowledged mistakes in Iraq, he bristled when Blitzer suggested that Cheney had lost credibility because of blunders there.
"I just simply don't accept the premise of your question," he said, cutting the interviewer off in mid-sentence. "I just think it's hogwash."
Even some Republican lawmakers have become increasingly vocal about their concerns over Cheney's role in the administration, especially as an aggressive and influential advocate for invading Iraq. He's also been instrumental in White House efforts to expand presidential power and restrict civil liberties in the pursuit of suspected terrorists.
"The president listened too much to the vice president," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., told The Politico, a new Capitol Hill publication. McCain, a leading GOP presidential hopeful for 2008, said Bush was "very badly served" by Cheney and former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who was one of Cheney's closest allies.
Cheney told CNN that McCain is "a good man" with whom he sometimes disagrees.
Democrats have been more scathing.
"The vice president doesn't know what he's talking about," Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told Fox News last Sunday. "He has yet to be right one single time on Iraq. Name me one single time he's been right. It's about time we stop listening to that ideological rhetoric."
Cheney insisted on CNN Wednesday that "there's been a lot of success" in Iraq, and said that if the Senate passes a non-binding resolution opposing the administration's troop buildup there, "it won't stop us." The biggest threat to victory, he said, is if "we don't have the stomach for the fight."
The vice president also claimed success in weakening al-Qaida, removing the terrorist group's leadership below Osama bin Laden and his deputy, Ayman al-Zawahiri, "several times". "We've had great success against al-Qaida," Cheney said.
Democrats, emboldened by their recent takeover of Congress, say they may hold hearings to probe Cheney's roles in the Iraq war, Bush's expansion of presidential power and the administration's energy policies. Critics, including some former administration officials, have accused Cheney of pressuring intelligence analysts to support the case for war and promoting intelligence from Iraqi exile groups that proved to be bogus.
White House officials say Bush values Cheney's advice as much as ever, but there's little doubt that the vice president has lost some clout. His ally Rumsfeld was recently replaced by Defense Secretary Robert Gates, whose views aren't always in sync with the vice president's.
In another step back from Cheney's hard-line approach, the administration announced last week that it had agreed to stop warrantless wiretapping and instead seek court approval for any surveillance. Cheney had insisted that court oversight wasn't necessary.
The vice president could face more difficulty when he's called to testify at the perjury trial of his former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby. Cheney told CNN that he'd testify "within a matter of weeks."
The case stems from allegations that White House officials disclosed the identity of former CIA spy Valerie Plame because her husband, former Ambassador Joseph Wilson, had challenged the administration's claim that Saddam Hussein had shopped for uranium in the African country of Niger. That claim also proved to be false.
Prosecutors say that Cheney was determined to counter Wilson's criticism and directed Libby to undermine Wilson's credibility with reporters. Libby is charged with obstruction of justice and lying to a grand jury investigating the Plame affair.
Libby's lawyers say that Cheney felt that his aide was made a White House scapegoat to protect presidential adviser Karl Rove, whom Bush was counting on to direct Republican election strategy. Rove has since acknowledged that he tipped off at least one reporter to Plame's identity.
The vice president told CNN he remains "a strong friend and supporter" of Libby's, but he declined to discuss the case.
"This'll all unfold here in the very near future," he told Fox News recently. "I have strong views on this subject, but I'm not going to talk about it."
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