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Franken: America a 'chump' on Iraq rebuilding

/ Source: The Associated Press

Senate candidate Al Franken called on the U.S. to rescind $7.1 billion that's committed but not yet obligated to Iraqi reconstruction, and spend it instead on highway infrastructure improvements in the United States.

Franken, the Democratic candidate in Minnesota's Senate race, said at a State Capitol news conference Monday that there's no reason for U.S. dollars to keep flowing if Iraq can pay for its own reconstruction.

"There's a line between being responsible for rebuilding a country you helped destroy, and being a chump, and I think we crossed that line," Franken said.

Last week, Franken's opponent, Republican Sen. Norm Coleman, said the U.S. should take back $1.1 billion committed to Iraqi reconstruction after a government report found that Iraq has a cumulative budget surplus of up to $50 billion for 2008, thanks mostly to oil and gas revenues.

The Coleman campaign issued a statement Monday applauding Franken for joining in seeking to have the Iraqis pay for more of their own reconstruction. But it said Franken's proposal includes money that has already been returned, plus more that will be returned in the coming weeks, and that it would put U.S. troops at risk by taking money away from a program that provides funds to field commanders for emergency responses.

Franken's call for taking back more money set off a new round of tussling between the campaigns over Iraq, which has been a central issue in the race. Franken returned to one of his most persistent criticisms of Coleman — that as chairman of the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations from 2003 to the end of 2006, Coleman failed to provide any oversight of U.S. funds being diverted to Iraqi reconstruction.

"Senator Coleman at any time could have done these hearings on reconstruction and he did none," Franken said, arguing that to have done so might have run Coleman afoul of the Bush White House and Republican congressional leaders.

Coleman campaign manager Cullen Sheehan said Franken was being deceptive in how he characterized the work of the subcommittee on investigations. Sheehan said its small staff and budget would make it the wrong entity to undertake a comprehensive investigation of the Iraqi reconstruction.

Sheehan pointed out that the panel's ranking Democratic member could have instigated an investigation of the reconstruction but did not. That senator, Carl Levin of Michigan, also hasn't initiated such an investigation since becoming chairman, Sheehan said.

Coleman has supported investigations of U.S. spending and policies in Iraq by other entities including the Special Investigator General for Iraq Reconstruction, a nonpartisan group established by Congress to conduct oversight in Iraq.

"It's a matter of dollars and resources and not duplicating effort," Sheehan said.