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Top House Members from both sides of the aisle are furious at Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld for essentially banning lawmakers from taking fact-finding trips to Iraq, and many believe the Pentagon chief is using the cloak of "security concerns" as an excuse to block Congressional oversight.
Senior lawmakers from both parties have voiced dissatisfaction with the policy — which has halted one trip in mid-stream and prompted the cancellation of another, and their complaints have now filtered up to House leaders.
"Rumsfeld has been a real problem and has really alienated Members," said a senior House GOP leadership aide.
During recess, Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla.) and Rep. Rodney Frelinghuysen (R-N.J.) attempted to go to Iraq but only got as far as Qatar before being told by Pentagon officials they could not go any further.
"I wasn’t given any justification," Young said, despite his having spent "36 hours on an airplane" to get there.
Young made an effort to get the decision reversed, and the White House called the Pentagon to ask that the lawmakers be allowed in. Young said it was his understanding that Rumsfeld himself rejected the request.
The Appropriations chairman said he understood that there were security concerns, but he also pointed out that Baghdad is considered safe enough that scores of journalists and civilian workers from federal agencies and nongovernmental organizations are allowed to roam the city.
Across the Capitol, Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) has canceled a planned bipartisan trip to Iraq. Sources said Stevens did so after being told by the Pentagon that, for security reasons, he could only visit Baghdad airport for a couple of hours. A Stevens spokesman declined to comment.
Marine Lt. Col. David Lapan, a Pentagon spokesman, said that official policy allows two delegations per month to visit the Baghdad airport for two hours. Each delegation, one House and one Senate, can include a maximum of 10 people.
Lapan said he could not by press time provide comment on Rumsfeld’s general views of Congressional trips to Iraq.
Every lawmaker interviewed for this story acknowledged that there were some legitimate security problems associated with having Members of Congress visiting such an unstable environment. Several pointed to the fact that two American soldiers were killed in Baghdad on Thursday.
At the same time, though, Members feel Rumsfeld is concerned about more than just their safety.
In early May, a delegation of six House Members — Reps. David Hobson (R-Ohio), Mike Rogers (R-Mich.), Robin Hayes
(R-N.C.), Ed Schrock (R-Va.), Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas) and Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) — went to Iraq and spent an afternoon at Baghdad airport speaking to troops.
After the trip, Reyes, the ranking member of the Armed Services subcommittee on strategic forces, had a confrontation with Rumsfeld that he believed was illustrative of the secretary’s real views.
The morning after the House delegation got back, Reyes said, the lawmakers had breakfast with Rumsfeld. The Texas Democrat said that during the breakfast he relayed to the secretary some complaints he had heard from soldiers in Iraq about poor sanitation, delayed mail and other quality-of-life issues.
"He didn’t react well," Reyes said of Rumsfeld. "He reacted by saying that’s why he didn’t want any Congressional delegations going into Iraq. He said [the troops] didn’t need the distractions of Members of Congress."
Reyes, who said he visited Bosnia five times after the war there ended, argued that security simply wasn’t reason enough to bar lawmakers from Iraq. "I think it’s just Rumsfeld trying to control access to an area," he said.
Rogers agreed that some Pentagon officials were clearly less than pleased about having to deal with lawmakers during their trip.
"I think they would love it if they could just be left alone, but that’s how trouble starts," the Michigan Member said. "I take my constitutional oversight responsibilities seriously. We’re not there as tourists."
Like Rogers, many lawmakers who were supportive of the war effort are now itching to see the situation on the ground so they can assess what kind of support Congress should provide in the future.
Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), chairman of the Armed Services subcommittee on total force, said that while he sympathized with the difficulty of providing security, he was eager to go to Iraq as soon as possible.
"The fact that I haven’t been able to go is personally frustrating," he said.
Several House Republicans said that frustration on the Hill has reached the point where some Members are considering following the example set by Rep. Christopher Shays
(R-Conn.), who went to Iraq in April without Pentagon approval.
Sources said Congressional anger over the issue emerged Thursday during a meeting between lawmakers and Paul Bremer, the new civilian administrator of Iraq. The complaints have also reached Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.).
"The Speaker has been very supportive of Members getting [into Iraq] and doing the necessary oversight, and he will continue to work to encourage the Department of Defense to make sure that Members have proper access," said Hastert spokesman John Feehery.
To many lawmakers, the policy on Iraq trips is symptomatic of a larger issue — what they see as Rumsfeld’s general disregard for Congress.
"This is just Rumsfeld poking Congress one more time," said a Republican lawmaker who frequently deals with the Pentagon.