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Lott sympathetic to ousted Army official



From Dana Bash and Kelly Wallace
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott said Thursday he agrees with ousted Assistant Secretary of the Army Mike Parker's complaints that the administration's funding request for the Army Corps of Engineers, which he headed, was insufficient.

Public grievances about the budget by Parker, a former Mississippi congressman, were part of the reason he was asked to resign Wednesday, according to White House and congressional aides. He aired those grievances before the Senate Budget Committee last week in testimony that some congressional aides described to CNN as "terribly honest."

"Mike Parker served as a member of Congress, is very knowledgeable in the area of the Corps of Engineers (and) felt very strongly that the budget for the corps was insufficient. I agree with him," said Lott, R-Mississippi, who served with Parker in the House.

"But the administration felt like his comments in more than one venue were inappropriate and went over the line. And they felt like they couldn't tolerate that. So I understand both sides," Lott said.

Congressional aides told CNN Wednesday they believed Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had Parker fired for questioning President Bush's proposed budget cuts for the Corps of Engineers. Officially, the Defense Department said Parker resigned.

"The department appreciates Mr. Parker's contributions and wishes him the best in his future endeavors," the Pentagon said in a written statement Wednesday.

The White House declined to comment, but a senior administration official would not dispute that Parker had been asked to leave.

"The administration expects its staff to support its budget," this official told CNN.

Another senior Bush aide said that when the budget is final, you "want everybody to support it." The aide added that Parker "doesn't appear to agree with the president's budget."

During his briefing Thursday, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said that while the president "welcomes a diversity of views," he does think it is "appropriate for his staff to support the administration's policy."

"The president welcomes a healthy debate, but there's also a matter of once the debate is settled and the president has proposed a budget, the president does think it's reasonable for the people who work for him to support the budget," Fleischer told reporters.

Sen. Kent Conrad, D-North Dakota, the Senate Budget Committee chairman, criticized Parker's removal, calling it a "serious mistake."

"Assistant Secretary Parker came before the Budget Committee and answered questions put to him honestly and directly. That is precisely his responsibility in our constitutional system," Conrad said. "The administration will cost itself credibility with Congress if it attempts to suppress the truth from its own representatives who testify before Congress."

In his testimony, Parker was asked if the president's proposal to provide approximately $4 billion for the agency, a cut of about 10 percent, is the right number. Parker said no. The Corps had requested more than $6 billion. Parker also told lawmakers the cuts would mean canceling $190 million in already contracted projects.

Congressional aides said that after the hearing Parker got word that Rumsfeld wanted him fired.