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Senators Want Answers After $87-Billion Request

September 10, 2003|John Hendren and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Democrats led a bipartisan attack Tuesday on the Bush administration's request for $87 billion in additional funds mostly for postwar Iraq, calling it a virtual "blank check" to pay for an ill-planned and undermanned reconstruction effort.

At a hearing of the Senate Armed Services Committee, lawmakers from both parties promised all the money it takes to finish the military task in Iraq. But critics used the occasion to take out weeks of frustration over what they called the administration's inept handling of the reconstruction since President Bush declared major combat over May 1.

Their main target was Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, a key architect of the Iraq policy and one of those faulted for overly optimistic predictions that Iraq would embrace American soldiers and that its oil revenue would pay for much of the rebuilding.

"You told Congress in March that 'we are dealing with a country that can really finance its own reconstruction and relatively soon,' " Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) told Wolfowitz at the hearing. "Talk about rosy scenarios."

Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) vowed not to "rubber-stamp" what he called "a war we should not have fought," adding, "Congress is not an ATM."

Although committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) defended the administration, Democratic critics were joined by some high-profile Republicans such as Sen. John McCain of Arizona, who said the administration "clearly underestimated the size of the challenge we would face" in Iraq.

Since Bush disclosed the $87-billion figure Sunday, Democrats have begun criticizing his budget request on two fronts: They say it should be approved only after Congress gets more details about what the funds will be used for. And they are using it as a lever to criticize his domestic policy, juxtaposing Bush's willingness to seek budget-busting spending for Iraq while resisting increases for programs to help U.S. citizens, such as money for schools and port security.

"After months of dodging questions, giving half-answers and ignoring congressional requests, the time has come for this administration to level with the Congress and the American people about Iraq," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif).

"The president has asked us for the $87 billion next year for our occupation of Iraq, which is essentially a blank check," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).

Pointing to new reports that intelligence analysts had warned of coordinated postwar attacks on U.S. troops, Kennedy passionately told Wolfowitz and Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: "You and other officials in the administration responsible for this war were warned, yet you put tens of thousands of American troops in harm's way without adequate planning.... How do you possibly explain the inadequacy of that planning? And who's going to pay the price for the inadequacy of that plan?"

Wolfowitz and Myers adamantly defended their preparation for postwar stability and reconstruction, saying that Iraq's infrastructure was in far worse shape than expected and that the administration had not oversold the ease of the task.

"I think we have done the planning, Sen. Kennedy, for our troops," Myers said. "I couldn't sit here if I didn't believe we have done everything we can do ... because we are dealing with our most precious treasure, and that's the blood of our sons and daughters."

Added Wolfowitz: "No one said ... anything other than this would be very bloody, it could be very long and by implication it could be very expensive."

Before the war, Wolfowitz said the cost of rebuilding Iraq could "range from $10 billion to $100 billion." Total proposed spending on the Iraq campaign and aftermath is so far $166 billion. Although administration officials have blamed Iraq's poor infrastructure for some of the unanticipated costs, $65.5 billion of the $87-billion request is earmarked for military operations -- including in Afghanistan -- not rebuilding.

Administration officials and their allies have suggested that an appearance of division among Americans could aid the enemy. When Sen. Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) asked if such debate encouraged Saddam Hussein loyalists and their allies who "are watching closely what we do and say here today in Washington," Wolfowitz picked up the theme.

"Well, the stakes are enormous, and they do have a lot of access to what goes on here," he said. While the debate is healthy, he added, "I do think it is important ... that we be able to project confidence."

Even among Republicans, however, there seems to be no hurry to close ranks behind the key architects of the administration's Iraq policy.

Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), who has criticized the administration's postwar planning, on Tuesday raised the prospect that the Bush administration might have to consider sacking high-profile war planners. Among those mentioned on Capitol Hill, though not by Hagel, were Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz.

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