Byrd blasts Iraq funding at hearing
WASHINGTON (AP) — A top Democrat accused the Bush administration Wednesday of undertaking a massive effort to rebuild Iraq without the blessing of the American people as the White House’s $87 billion plan to resurrect that country hit more turbulence in Congress.
Republican lawmakers voiced their own doubts over the lack of foreign contributions so far and the administration’s failure to sell the proposal to the public in a robust way.
But generally, they rallied behind Vice President Dick Cheney and other administration officials who fanned out across Capitol Hill to seek support for the proposal. The GOP-led Congress still seemed likely to approve Bush’s plan largely intact, with the Senate Appropriations Committee writing its version of the measure as early as Monday.
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld told that committee on Wednesday that President Bush’s proposal — which includes $20.3 billion to rebuild Iraq’s government and economy — was a prudent investment in international security.
“Is $87 billion a great deal of moneyâ¢ Yes,” Rumsfeld said. “But can our country afford itâ¢ The answer is also yes. Because it is necessary for the security of our nation and the stability of the world.”
No Democrat challenged that, and most are likely to support the final bill, which includes money for Afghanistan. But with huge federal deficits and the weak U.S. economy looming as sensitive political issues for next year’s elections, Democrats raised numerous questions about the Iraqi reconstruction portion of the plan.
In one exchange, the committee’s top Democrat, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, repeatedly asked Rumsfeld when the administration had received a public mandate for the Iraqi reconstruction effort. Byrd noted that officials have said a rebuilt, more democratic Iraq could help stabilize the Middle East.
“The American people never been told that we’re going into that country to build a new nation, to build a new government, to democratize the country and to democratize the Middle East,” Byrd said. “They were told we’re going in there because of weapons of mass destruction.”
At another point, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, a California Democrat, said Democrats eager to cooperate resented their treatment by the administration.
“There’s a feeling you know it all and nobody else knows anything, and therefore we’re here just to say, ‘Yes sir, how high do we jump?’ And at some point, we refuse to jump,” she said.
Rumsfeld shrugged off a suggestion by Sen. Ernest Hollings, a South Carolina, that U.S. policy in Iraq has been “a political failure,” saying that conclusion was premature, coming not even five months after major combat ended.
The defense secretary also listed the 31 other countries — from Albania to the United Kingdom — that have contributed troops in Iraq, though the overwhelming number of soldiers are from the United States.
“So this business that America is going it alone is not factual at all,” he said.
That drew scoffs from Democrats.
Sen. Patrick Leahy said many of those countries’ military contingents were no larger than “a rural police department in my state of Vermont.”
L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Baghdad, ran into similar criticism at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
The committee’s top Democrat, Joseph Biden of Delaware, said Bush’s foreign policy “so poisoned the well” before the war by failing to build a broad international coalition that next month’s international donors’ conference is unlikely to generate more than $2 billion or $3 billion in support.
“It’s a terrible indictment, in my view, of our foreign policy and a harsh example of the price of unilateralism,” he said.
Republicans also voiced discomfort. Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio questioned prospects for international contributions, so “that this isn’t just going to be Uncle Sugar’s full responsibility.”
Later, before the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee, Democrats pressed Bremer on how much the United States will have to spend in coming years on reconstruction beyond the $20.3 billion. Bremer said future requests would be “nothing like this,” but said he couldn’t offer specifics or a range of costs.
That led to a testy exchange with the full committee’s top Democrat, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin.
“With all due respect, if you can’t give us an answer, you’re stiffing us,” he said.
“Congressman, I resent that, Bremer replied.
“So do I,” Obey said.
In addition to the hearings yesterday, Cheney attended a private meeting on Iraq with House Republicans.
According to GOP officials who attended the session, Rep. Zach Wamp, of Tennessee, raised the prospect of using Iraqi oil revenue to repay the United States. Moments later, Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, of California, said the result of the administration’s proposal would be for U.S. taxpayers to help repay debt that Saddam Hussein owed to European nations before his government was toppled.
The administration opposes repayments from Iraqi oil profits, arguing that would only increase that country’s huge $200 billion foreign debt and slow its rebuilding process.
Cheney and Rumsfeld said the United States will not let federal funds be used to repay debt owed by Saddam’s government. And testifying to members of the House Appropriations Committee, Bremer said he would not oppose language forbidding use of the money to repay Iraqi debt.