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WASHINGTON (Reuters) - President George W. Bush on Tuesday refused to rule out a pardon for former White House aide Lewis "Scooter" Libby, a day after sparing him from prison in a case that helped seal his Iraq legacy and gave ammunition to Democrats.
Bush, who angered Democrats but reassured conservatives by saving Libby from serving a 2-1/2 year prison sentence, told reporters who asked about an eventual full pardon for Libby: "As to the future I rule nothing in and nothing out."
Bush's move to spare Libby -- while leaving intact a $250,000 fine and two-year probation -- was seen in Washington as an act of loyalty by an unpopular president attempting to repair ties with disaffected conservatives who had pressed him to keep Libby out of jail.
There were comparisons to pardons issued by his father, then-President George H.W. Bush, in 1992 to key figures in the Iran-contra scandal -- former Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger and State Department official Elliott Abrams.
The decision was also likened to then-President Bill Clinton's 11th-hour pardon in 2001 of financier Marc Rich from tax-evasion charges.
Libby was saved from a jail term for his conviction in March on charges of lying and obstruction of justice in an investigation into who leaked the identity of a CIA officer, Valerie Plame. Plame's husband, former Ambassador Joe Wilson, questioned evidence used to justify the Iraq war.
"It closes one chapter of the sort of life-draining issue of George W. Bush and Iraq," presidential historian Stephen Hess said of Monday's action. "It's totally in keeping with everything he's done up to now, including his sense of loyalty to his people."
Hess said Bush's move will eventually be seen as a footnote to a legacy that will feature Iraq prominently.
But for now the decision has embittered Democrats, increasing a sense that bipartisan compromises may be elusive in Washington in the president's remaining 18 months in office.
"Will it have an impact? Absolutely. How much of one I can't tell yet," said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
Bush argued in sparing Libby that the 30-month sentence was excessive. The prosecutor in the case, Patrick Fitzgerald, questioned that and said the term was fair given the crime involved.
Democratic candidates for president found in Bush's move a reason to rally the party's faithful. New York Democratic Sen. Charles Schumer issued a statement through the party's Senate fund-raising organization asking supporters to sign a petition of outrage.
"Tell President Bush you are appalled by his actions," said the e-mail, which did not ask for donations.
The Libby move was an unknown factor on the Republican campaign trail.
Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and prospective candidate Fred Thompson of Tennessee issued statements of support. Others were more circumspect, and Arizona Sen. John McCain was conspicuously silent on the issue.
The Bush decision appealed to the conservative base that can be key to Republican presidential primary elections. It could be more problematic for Republicans in the general-election campaign, in which candidates typically move toward the center.
Many at the White House found criticism from New York Sen. Hillary Clinton particularly ironic. Aside from the Rich pardon, her husband's former national security adviser, Sandy Berger, reached a plea deal in 2005 and avoided a jail sentence for illegally removing classified documents from the National Archives and destroying some of them.
The White House said Bush acted without input from the Justice Department, sparing further criticism of his embattled attorney general, Alberto Gonzales.
The office of Michigan Democratic Rep. John Conyers, chairman of the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee, said he was considering holding a hearing to seek more details from the White House about the 2003 leak of Plame's name.
Additional reporting by Andy Sullivan