U.S. President George W. Bush is spending a long weekend at his Texas ranch, where he is following developments in Iraq and hosting Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi. The visit is a thank you for Italy's strong support for military action against Iraq.

They have a wide agenda for the meeting at the Bush ranch: from Iraq to the status of trans-Atlantic relations.

Those ties were strained during the lead-up to the war when France and Germany led opposition in the United Nations to the use of force against Iraq. Mr. Berlusconi, who recently took over the revolving presidency of the European Union, is now in a position to help ease those strains.

In announcing the visit, the White House stressed that President Bush values Mr. Berlusconi's friendship. One strong indication is the fact that the Italian prime minister is one of just a handful of foreign leaders to be invited to both the Bush family home in Texas, and to Camp David, the presidential retreat in the Maryland mountains near Washington.

The meeting at the ranch takes place at a time when some of the evidence put forward by the White House to justify action against Iraq is coming under question in Congress.

There is particular concern about an allegation included in the State of the Union address in January. Mr. Bush said Iraq tried to buy uranium in Africa, but that claim was later called into doubt, leading critics to charge that the White House exaggerated the case for war.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert told the Fox News Sunday television program that the criticism is being led by Democrats seeking the president's job. ". . .and so it is their job from here on out, and you well see a lot of this, to try to hurt the credibility of the president, to throw mud and see what sticks."

Appearing on the same broadcast, the top Democrat on the Senate Intelligence Committee denied political motives were driving the controversy. Senator Jay Rockefeller said there are real questions that must be answered, and noted his panel is looking at the pre-war evidence.

"It is not a matter of politics," he said. "On the Intelligence Committee there is a lot of bipartisanship. It resounds, especially recently. It is just a question of was it right or was it wrong?"

Meanwhile, a leading Republican is calling for all members of the legislature to look at the matter calmly and keep in mind the big picture. "This is a long-term interest for this country, for the world, for stability and security. And I think that is what we always have to keep in mind as we work our way along here," said Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel on CNN Late Edition. He is a member of the Foreign Relations Committee and one of the first lawmakers to visit Iraq since the end of major combat.