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The Nation

Edwards Opposes Bush's Request for $87 Billion

October 15, 2003|Ronald Brownstein and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Deepening the Democratic split over Iraq, Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina on Tuesday became the party's first major presidential contender to flatly oppose President Bush's request for $87 billion that would be spent mainly in that country.

Another candidate, Sen. John F. Kerry of Massachusetts, toughened his stance on the request, saying he would oppose the bill unless changes are made. And a third Democratic contender, Sen. Joe Lieberman of Connecticut, said he would back the measure.

Rep. Richard A. Gephardt of Missouri is expected to support the request, which would mean that the four Democratic presidential contenders serving in Congress who backed the war with Iraq would be divided in half on the funding bill.

The votes by the White House hopefuls on the measure loom as one of the campaign's most important tests of how far they are willing to go in making Bush's Iraq policy central to their challenge to his reelection.

In a conference call with reporters, Edwards said the administration's postwar policies in Iraq had failed and that he would oppose the aid request to pressure Bush to change course.

"It is clear to me that President Bush is not going to change direction unless someone stands up to him and says no," said Edwards, who voted for last fall's resolution authorizing the war in Iraq.

Edwards said he did not want the United States to withdraw from Iraq. But he said he believed that a vote denying Bush his funding request would compel the administration to develop a new reconstruction plan that provided a larger role for the United Nations and ensure that the rebuilding "will not be exploited as a means to give sweetheart deals to [the president's] friends."

Administration officials have consistently disputed persistent Democratic charges that links to the White House have influenced the awarding of contracts for work in Iraq.

Edwards made his announcement just hours after Lieberman, campaigning in Oklahoma, said he would support Bush's funding request.

"We have 135,000 troops over there," Lieberman said. "We have to give them every dollar in support and get them home in peace."

Lieberman also voted for last year's war resolution -- as did Kerry and Gephardt.

Kerry, in a statement released Tuesday after the comments by Edwards and Lieberman, strongly suggested that he would oppose the funding request.

"Unless this proposal is changed to better protect taxpayer dollars and shares the burden and risk of transforming Iraq with the United Nations and the rest of the international community, then I will oppose it," the statement said.

Gephardt has not taken a final position on the measure, but he has indicated he would support it despite reservations about Bush's postwar policies.

"He doesn't believe we should be pulling resources away from our troops in the field," said Gephardt spokesman Erik Smith. "But he thinks Congress has some legitimate questions for the administration. He wants to hear their answers before he makes his final decision."

Public opinion surveys have found rising hostility among Democratic primary voters toward the aid request. In a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released this week, 74% of Democrats, and 57% of Americans overall, said they opposed the bill.

In that environment, the campaigns of Edwards, Lieberman, Kerry and Gephardt have expected that if they backed the spending request, they would come under fire from rival Howard Dean, and perhaps Wesley K. Clark.

"Dean will certainly use this as a way to try to define himself against the field," said a senior aide to one of the contenders.

But the campaigns of the four candidates in Congress also have believed that if they opposed the request, Republicans would charge them with abandoning the troops on the ground. Indeed, Republicans raised exactly that argument in response to Edwards' announcement Tuesday.

"Sen. Edwards voted to send our troops to fight the war on terror," said Christine Iverson, Republican National Committee spokeswoman. "Now he won't give them the necessary resources to do the job ...."

Rep. Dennis J. Kucinich of Ohio, a long-shot 2004 Democratic contender who voted against last year's war resolution, has said he would oppose the $87-billion request.

The money is divided between $67 billion for military operations and security in Iraq and Afghanistan and $20 billion to rebuild Iraq.

Dean and Clark -- along with not having to vote on the spending measure -- have not fully clarified their positions on it. In a recent candidate debate, Dean suggested he would support at least the portion of the request for the military mission.

But Dean also has ducked repeated questions on the issue by saying: "I'm not running for Congress, I'm running for president."

On Tuesday, while campaigning in Iowa, Dean hardened his stand, saying: "If the president doesn't have a sufficient commitment to this operation to get rid of ... $87 billion in tax cuts, then we should vote no" on the spending request.

The Senate already has voted down a proposal to cover the costs by repealing some of the Bush tax cuts that benefit wealthier Americans.

Kym Spell, a spokeswoman for Clark, said Tuesday that the retired Army general believed many questions needed to be answered about the request and the administration's overall plan for Iraq before he could say whether he would support the aid package.

Such responses are frustrating to the candidates serving in Congress.

"These guys both went to California and let us know how they feel about the recall" of Gov. Gray Davis, said Robert Gibbs, spokesman for Kerry. "The least they could do is let us know where they stand on the $87 billion."

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