The partisan divide over the future of U.S. involvement in Iraq escalated bitterly Thursday with the top Democrat in the House calling President Bush incompetent and Bush himself personally trying to rally Republicans on Capitol Hill.
House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi lashed out at the president, saying his Iraq policies show incompetence and the only conclusion to draw is that “the emperor has no clothes.”
“I believe that the president’s leadership and the actions taken in Iraq demonstrate an incompetence in terms of knowledge, judgment and experience,” the California Democrat told reporters at a Capitol Hill news conference.
Earlier Thursday, Bush sought to rally Republican lawmakers around his Iraq plan, saying Iraqis are ready to “take the training wheels off” by assuming some political power.
“He asked us to keep the faith,” Rep. Deborah Pryce of Ohio, a member of the Republican leadership, said as she emerged from the meeting. “We’re all behind him.”
Bush warned that violence is likely to worsen as that transfer approaches.
The president, whose approval ratings in the polls have fallen to their lowest levels in his presidency, made a rare visit to Capitol Hill as lawmakers prepare to head to their home states for the Memorial Day recess.
Bush’s visit was followed by Pelosi’s comments, the strongest to date from a Democratic leader.
“This president should have known ... when you decide to go to war you have to know what the consequences of your action are and how you can accomplish the mission,” Pelosi said. “There was plenty of intelligence to say there would be chaos in Iraq following the fall of Baghdad.”
Bush’s policy “of ignoring his own State Department about what would happen after the fall of Baghdad and ignoring the intelligence as to the chaotic situation that would exist ... carries with it a responsibility for all of the costs of war,” she said. “And that’s not only the president, that is all of us any time we vote to send our young people into harm’s way.
“The results of his action are what undermine his leadership, not my statements,” she said. “The emperor has no clothes. When are people going to face the reality?”
Steve Schmidt, a spokesman for the Bush-Cheney campaign, said Pelosi’s comments “represent a grotesque political attack. They’re simply outrageous, and the American people will reject that type of blame America first. ... American troops are bravely fighting the terrorist enemy, and it is the terrorists who are responsible for the violence, not the president.”
And Rep. Tom Reynolds, R-N.Y., chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, said if all Pelosi could offer is taunting U.S. troops “by saying they are dying needlessly and are risking their lives on a shallow mission, then she should just go back to her pastel-colored condo in San Francisco and keep her views to herself.”
Republicans were supportive of the president’s comments to them.
“This has been a rough couple of months for the president, particularly on the issues of Iraq, and I think he was here to remind folks that we do have a policy and this policy is going to be tough,” said Sen. Rick Santorum, R-Pa. “Things, as I think he commented, are very likely to get worse before they get better.”
Several members of Congress said Bush expressed his determination to stick to a June 30 date for handing partial governing authority to Iraqis.
“He talked about ‘time to take the training wheels off,”’ said Rep. Deborah Pryce, R-Ohio. “The Iraqi people have been in training, and now it’s time for them to take the bike and go forward.”
It was the second year in a row that Bush met privately with his fellow Republicans just ahead of the congressional break. The stakes were especially high this year: Bush and most lawmakers face re-election, and Iraq is still plagued by chaos and violence six weeks before the handover.
Several GOP lawmakers who attended the meeting said Bush told his audience to brace for more violence after June 30, and he predicted insurgents would try to disrupt subsequent elections.
Bush tries to reassure lawmakers
The lawmakers, who spoke on condition of anonymity, said Bush sought to reassure them that despite his sagging poll numbers, he is eager for the re-election fight. They said the president defended his record on the economy, education and Medicare, all of which are targets for Democratic attacks.
Some of the 200 or so Republicans emerging from the meeting said Bush’s speech was a welcome pep talk. They echoed the White House line on key issues.
“It was a good team meeting,” said Sen. George Allen, R-Va. “There are those who will question whether or not we will stay and fight” in Iraq, Allen said.
Referring indirectly to the prisoner abuse scandal, Allen added: “Of course the president believes that those who are serving very honorably ought to have our gratitude and appreciation.”
Some in Congress, including Republicans, have criticized the Bush administration for not keeping Congress abreast of the cost of the Iraq war and reconstruction, the abuse of Iraqi detainees and the transfer of power.
But Allen said there was no dissent in the room.
“None that I heard,” Allen said. Bush was interrupted by applause “probably dozens of times, and several standing ovations,” he said.
Thumbs up from McCain
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., flashed two thumbs up as he left. “It was a pep talk for Republicans,” he said. “He laid out a pretty strong case for staying the course in Iraq.”
McCain said the president did not mention in any detail the prison abuse scandal in Iraq, nor did he take questions on that or any other topic. “Nothing you haven’t heard before,” McCain said.
Arriving at the Capitol on Thursday morning, the president strode through the hallways flanked by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., and House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill.
He left with his arm around Sen. Jeff Sessions of Alabama. White House aides positioned reporters and photographers in a corridor to record these scenes projecting unity. Bush ignored journalists’ questions.
With the transfer of sovereignty in Iraq less than six weeks away, Bush’s schedule is intently focused on the war.
Later Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and top commanders in Iraq planned to brief senators.
On Monday, Bush visits the Army War College at Carlisle Barracks, Pa., to give the first in a series of speeches laying out the details of the handover of political power, a senior administration official said.