Just when things looked darkest for I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby, when prison seemed all but certain, President Bush wiped away the former White House aide's 2 1/2-year sentence in the CIA leak case. Bush's move came Monday, just five hours after a federal appeals panel ruled that Libby could not delay his prison term. His prospects for an emergency appeal to the Supreme Court seemed bleak. The former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney, Libby was just waiting for a date to surrender. After months of sidestepping pardon questions, Bush stepped in. He did not issue a pardon but erased a prison sentence that he felt was just too harsh. "I respect the jury's verdict," Bush said in a written statement. "But I have concluded that the prison sentence given to Mr. Libby is excessive. Therefore, I am commuting the portion of Mr. Libby's sentence that required him to spend 30 months in prison." Special Prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald disputed the president's assertion that the prison term was excessive. Libby was sentenced under the same laws as other criminals, Fitzgerald said. "It is fundamental to the rule of law that all citizens stand before the bar of justice as equals." Libby's attorney, Theodore Wells, said in a statement that the Libby family was grateful for Bush's action and continued to believe in his innocence. Because he was not pardoned, Libby remains the highest-ranking White House official convicted of a crime since the Iran-Contra affair. But he won't have to serve a day in prison, a fact that his friends cheered, even those who wished he'd received a full pardon. "That's fantastic. It's a great relief," said former Ambassador Richard Carlson, who helped raise millions for Libby's defense fund. "Scooter Libby did not deserve to go to prison and I'm glad the president had the courage to do this." Though the leak investigation is complete and nobody will have to serve prison time, the scandal that has loomed over the Bush administration for years did not subside. Democrats were enraged. "Libby's conviction was the one faint glimmer of accountability for White House efforts to manipulate intelligence and silence critics of the Iraq war," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Now, even that small bit of justice has been undone." House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said Bush's decision showed the president "condones criminal conduct." The president left intact a $250,000 fine and two years probation for his conviction of lying and obstructing justice in a probe into the leak of a CIA operative's identity. The former operative, Valerie Plame, contends the White House was trying to discredit her husband, a critic of Bush's Iraq policy. Bush said his action still "leaves in place a harsh punishment for Mr. Libby." The leak case has hung over the White House for years. Special Prosecutor Fitzgerald questioned top administration officials, including Bush and Cheney, about their possible roles. And Libby's trial revealed the extraordinary steps that Bush and Cheney were willing to take to discredit a critic of the Iraq war. Nobody was ever charged with the leak, including Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage or White House political adviser Karl Rove, who provided the information for the original article. Prosecutors said Libby obstructed the investigation by lying about how he learned about Plame and whom he told. Already at record lows in the polls, Bush risked a political backlash with his decision. President Ford tumbled in the polls after his 1974 pardon of Richard M. Nixon, and the decision was a factor in Ford's loss in the 1976 election. Bush's father - former President George H.W. Bush - issued pardons shortly before leaving office in 1992 for former Defense Secretary Caspar W. Weinberger and five other former officials who had served in the Reagan administration. The six were involved in the Iran-Contra affair, in which arms were secretly sold to Iran to win the freedom of American hostages, then the money was funneled to anti-communist guerrillas in Nicaragua despite a congressional ban on military aid. On Monday, White House officials said Bush knew he could take political heat for commuting Libby's prison sentence and simply did what he thought was right. They would not say what advice Cheney might have given the president. Bush said Cheney's former aide was not getting off free. "The reputation he gained through his years of public service and professional work in the legal community is forever damaged," Bush said. "His wife and young children have also suffered immensely. He will remain on probation. The significant fines imposed by the judge will remain in effect. The consequences of his felony conviction on his former life as a lawyer, public servant and private citizen will be long-lasting." Attorney William Jeffress said he had spoken to Libby briefly by phone and "I'm happy at least that Scooter will be spared any prison time. The prison sentence was imminent but obviously the conviction itself is a heavy blow to Scooter."