Even as controversy flares over abuse of Iraqi prisoners, Congress is moving toward reaffirming support for U.S. involvement in Iraq with decisions this month on more funds for military operations there and a related issue — increasing the size of the Army and Marine Corps.
Leaders of both parties in the House and Senate said Tuesday they did not expect the revelations of abuse of Iraqi prisoners by U.S. military personnel to erode public support for the U.S. effort in Iraq.
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., called the abuse “so disgusting and so degrading” and said it “will be interpreted around the world as almost undercutting our efforts” in Iraq.
Frist said he did not think the abuse scandal would affect whether the Senate votes to spend more money on U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq.
House Majority Whip Tom DeLay, R–Texas told reporters, “This kind of monstrous abuse will not be tolerated by this Congress … nor does it in any way reflect the character of the hundreds of thousand of courageous heroes who serve under our flag.”
Asked whether the abuse reports would undermine public support for Iraq operations, DeLay said, “I hope not. I have every confidence in the American people understanding how important it is to fight this war on terror…. I have a lot of confidence that whoever did this is going to be prosecuted. I think that will satisfy the American people.”
But DeLay complained that he and other House leaders had not been informed promptly of the Defense Department investigation of abuse when the probe began.
“If we’re going to be a partner in this war on terror, then we ought to be completely briefed, not just briefed on things they want us to hear,” DeLay told reporters.
House Democratic Whip Steny Hoyer also said he didn’t expect the abuse furor would sap support for U.S. operations in Iraq.
More money needed
This week, both the House and Senate Armed Services committees begin drafting military spending bills to cover the 2005 fiscal year that starts Oct 1.
The House committee, headed by Chairman Duncan Hunter, R-Calif., will consider whether to authorize more funds for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but has not yet decided whether some of the funds would be available before Oct. 1.
Hunter wants to provide money for the Pentagon to increase the size of the Army by 10,000 soldiers a year for the next three years and the Marines by 3,000 a year for three years.
Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., who serves on the Armed Services Committee and proposed an increase in the size of Army last December, said the necessity of more money for Iraq and the need for a bigger Army are “interlocking problems.”
Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn., who is calling for an immediate $50 billion supplemental spending bill to pay for Iraq operations, said the Bush administration “is running out of money faster than they will admit.”
Although Cooper acknowledged that his $50 billion measure is unlikely to get a straight up-or-down vote in the House, “it already has had a terrific effect” by adding urgency to the debate over funding for the troops.
Errors in budgeting, deployment?
Critics of the administration, both in Congress and outside, have charged that Bush and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld didn’t budget for Iraq contingencies and have not deployed enough armor to protect American soldiers from Iraqi fighters.
A long-standing complaint of Rumsfeld's critics is that he did not deploy enough troops to Iraq to successfully carry out the mission. That issue re-surfaced Tuesday.
Speaking at a Pentagon press conference, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, the vice chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said an Army investigation of abuse of Iraqi prisoners found that "there was improper training and not enough troops" to guard the prisoners.
NBC News military analyst retired Army Gen. Barry McCaffrey said last week that the administration should immediately deploy sufficient numbers of Bradley Fighting Vehicles to protect American soldiers in Baghdad and other urban areas. Many of the U.S. casualties have come in attacks on Humvees that lack the armor of the Bradley vehicles. Other critics have focused on ad hoc spending on Iraq.
“The overriding problem is that this administration refuses to pay for things inside the budget,” said Tauscher. “The war isn’t paid for inside the budget. They have a credit card called ‘Iraq war’ and it’s in Don Rumsfeld’s pocket. So far they have racked up $160 billion worth of charges on it.”
She added, “We know they are going to come for another supplemental (spending bill for Iraq). We know they need to come before the end of the fiscal year or the military will be cannibalizing on itself until they get the supplemental. That’s why I support what Jim Cooper is doing. We will probably have a $23 to $28 billion supplemental authorized in our (defense authorization) bill.”
She wants to take $1.6 billion allotted for ballistic missile defense and use it for Iraq instead.
Last October, when Bush asked Congress for an $87 billion supplemental spending bill for Iraq and Afghanistan, Congress approved the funds, by a lopsided margin in the Senate, but with about one-fourth of the House, mostly Democrats, including Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi of California, voting “no.”
When MSNBC.com asked Pelosi last week whether she supported Cooper’s push for $50 billion in immediate funding for operations Iraq, she said, “I believe that whatever the cost of the war, and $50 billion, if that is amount, should be part of our appropriations debate. I know that the administration wants to keep the money off budget, so the true deficit is not known to the American people. But whether it is part of a supplemental or part of regular order in the Appropriations (Committee), I support the troops having what they need.”
Both Tauscher and Cooper voted for the Iraq war resolution in October of 2002 and the $87 billion supplemental last fall.
But the vote on the $87 billion split the party, with Sen. John Kerry, who is now the presumptive Democratic nominee, joined by 11 other Senate Democrats, and 115 House Democrats in voting against the funds.
A new vote on spending for Iraq might put a few Democrats in an awkward situation, but in general most Democrats who voted "no" on the $87 billion last October represent safe districts where they have weak Republican opposition or none at all.
National Republican Congressional Committee spokesman Carl Forti said there are a few races where the issue of Iraq spending could make a difference. He cited Virginia’s Ninth District, where 11-term Democrat Rick Boucher, who voted against the $87 billion, is running against Republican Kevin Triplett.
All but five House Republicans voted for Iraq funding last October and most are likely to do so again.
Menendez: no exit strategy
The third-ranking Democrat in the House, Rep. Bob Menendez of New Jersey, said last week, “There is no end game; the administration doesn’t have an exit strategy. … This is an open-ended engagement.”
A vote for more money for Iraq puts congressional Democrats in the position of paying for a war that most of them oppose. Asked why Democrats cannot say to the Bush administration, “Unless you give us a plan, we can’t give you more money,” Tauscher said, “Democrats are committed to doing everything we can for our fighting men and women.”
While she hopes Kerry will be elected in November, Tauscher said, “we are lashed to the mast with this administration until Jan. 19" — the last full day of Bush’s term.