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Senate Republicans Say `No' to a Vote on Rumsfeld

Democrats, hoping to focus voters' attention on discontent with the Iraq war, float a resolution urging Bush to oust the Defense chief.

September 07, 2006|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Senate's Republican majority on Wednesday blocked a no-confidence vote on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but the fact that the issue was even raised underscored the Democrats' increasing efforts to turn the controversial Pentagon chief into the focus of public discontent with the war in Iraq.

The Democratic-sponsored resolution called on President Bush to replace Rumsfeld as a tangible way of showing that the administration was willing to change its Iraq policies.

"This is about ... the president demonstrating to the American people he understands America cannot 'stay the course' when the present course is taking our country in the wrong direction," Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said in promoting the measure.

The resolution carried no force of law, and Bush for months has scoffed at the growing clamor among Democrats, and even among some Republicans, for Rumsfeld to go.

But the measure offered Democrats a chance to decry the continued turmoil in Iraq 3 1/2 years after the U.S.-led invasion, and an opportunity to portray Rumsfeld as a key symbol of the problems that have hampered the administration's goal of establishing a stable democracy there.

Democrats hope to turn public disaffection with the war into gains in November's midterm congressional elections.

In arguing against the resolution, Republicans reiterated the administration argument that the U.S. mission in Iraq was "critical to the war against terrorism."

"The Democrat amendment may rile up the liberal base, but it won't kill a single terrorist or prevent a single attack," Assistant Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said.

Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) dismissed the Democratic effort as a "political stunt."

Rumsfeld's handling of the war has come under fire since the early days of the invasion. Most recently, he was criticized for a speech last week that compared those who opposed the administration's Iraq policy to those who sought to appease the Nazis in the late 1930s.

Two years ago, Rumsfeld was assailed for using an automated signature machine to sign condolence letters to the families of troops killed in combat. He also was criticized after telling a soldier concerned about the lack of armor for vehicles in Iraq that "you go to war with the army you have ... not the army you might want."

"Apart from President Bush, no one embodies the administration's failures in Iraq more than Secretary Rumsfeld," Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) said during the debate Wednesday.

Sen. Barbara Boxer, joined by her California Democratic colleague, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, in supporting the resolution, argued, "If you look at the polls, they are begging us -- begging us -- to change course."

Two prominent Senate Republicans -- John McCain of Arizona and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska -- have expressed a loss of confidence in Rumsfeld's leadership but have said that it is up to the president to decide who is on his team.

McCain, saying it was important for the president to have a team around him that he could trust, said Wednesday, "The president should be able to keep that team until such time as the president of the United States loses confidence in that team."

Rumsfeld continues to have the "full confidence" of the president, White House Chief of Staff Joshua B. Bolten said in a letter to Reid. "Under his leadership, the United States armed forces and our allies have overthrown two brutal tyrannies and liberated more than 50 million people," Bolten wrote.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) was among those defending Rumsfeld on the Senate floor. "This man deserves the support of the Senate [and] does not deserve the opposition, I'm sad to say, ... on a purely political basis," he said.

Hoping to force their GOP colleagues facing tough reelection campaigns to cast a politically difficult vote, Democratic senators sought to hold the no-confidence vote on Rumsfeld during a debate on the annual defense spending bill.

But Republicans blocked any votes on the measure, citing a Senate rule that prohibits adding unrelated matters to a spending measure.

The spending bill, which proponents say is crucial to supporting the troops, is expected to pass the Senate on a strong bipartisan vote. It then must be reconciled with the House version.

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richard.simon@latimes.com

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