Democrats Rip Bremer on Iraq
Bush Official Bears Brunt of Criticism
Senate Democrats grilled Ambassador Paul Bremer Tuesday over the White House request for $20.3 billion in reconstruction funds for Iraq, questioning why U.S. taxpayers should bear the brunt of paying to rebuild the war-torn country.
Bremer met with Democrats and Republicans in separate private meetings to lobby Senators to support the administration’s request for the rebuilding funds. With Vice President Cheney in attendance, the ambassador was “warmly received” by GOP Senators and argued strongly that funds for both the reconstruction and military be considered as part of a single $87 billion emergency supplemental.
“He can handle himself,” said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). “He knows what he is doing.
“He is very persuasive and made a compelling argument that the package must stay together and the only way to bring the troops home is to improve the infrastructure over there,” McConnell added.
Bremer’s visit with Democratic Senators, by all accounts, did not go as well.
“Whoever gave him the advice to come into this [Senate Democratic] Caucus must be Bremer’s worst enemy,” said Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa). “It was just not a wise use of his time. It was not a good scene.”
“It was not a happy Caucus,” said Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), one of several lawmakers who chastised Bremer for not delivering answers to the Senators’ questions. At one point in the meeting, Rockefeller interrupted Bremer when the ambassador began comparing efforts in Iraq to the Marshall Plan.
“He starts talking and going over World War II and the Marshall Plan and all I said to him was, ‘Ambassador we all know our history, let’s get to Iraq,” Rockefeller said. “He just made that Caucus angry.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) said she doesn’t understand why the United States is paying to rebuild Iraq when it should be spending money on dire domestic needs. The California Democrat charged that the money would be spent to help pad the pockets of Cheney’s former employer, Halliburton.
“I suggested to him how can we get the American people to pay all this money and then have these projects sabotaged, oil wells blown up and all the construction,” she said. “It is just more money for Halliburton.”
Perhaps one of the angriest Democrats was Sen. Robert Byrd (W.Va.), who reprimanded Bremer for telling him the day before he would not appear again before the Appropriations Committee to respond to further questions about the request.
It was an “arrogant comment,” Byrd said.
In advance of hearings on both sides of the Capitol on President Bush’s $87 billion emergency spending request, Democrats pushed to dislodge the $20.3 billion reconstruction component from the overall supplemental, but Republican leaders were quick to pour cold water on that idea Tuesday.
“Absolutely not,” Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) said when asked if he would split or “bifurcate” the request. “I’m convinced that the money [requested] for reconstruction is absolutely necessary,” he said. “We can’t get the job done without the $20 billion.”
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) echoed the sentiment, adding that no one had asked him to divide the military money from the reconstruction part.
“The case has been made to keep the money together,” Frist said, alluding to the testimony Bremer gave before the Senate Appropriations Committee Monday and Bush’s speech to the United Nations Tuesday.
“Bremer made it absolutely clear that the two must go together” Senate Armed Services Chairman John Warner (R-Va.) said.
The House is also not inclined to create two separate bills.
“The last thing we need is another spending bill winding through Congress in September and October,” said House Appropriations spokesman John Scofield.
Nonetheless, Democrats pressed for the move, saying Republicans also question the need for the United States to foot the bill on education, health care and other domestic projects in Iraq.
“I think that there is a real possibility that the $22 billion now requested by the administration does not have the support in the Senate sufficient to pass,” Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) said. “Whether or not we have the opportunity to bifurcate the request is another question. If it were bifurcated, I’m confident that there are a number of Republicans who would join Democrats in insisting” that the administration first meet certain conditions before Congress appropriates reconstruction money, he added.
Some Republicans, reflecting the public’s growing unease with the situation in Iraq, are asking the administration to clearly outline its goals in Iraq and to give a detailed accounting of spending there.
“I think it will be a lively hearing with lots of different points of view,” Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.), who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee on foreign operations, predicted of Bremer’s appearance before his panel today. “I intend to ask some very pointed questions of the administration.”
While he hopes to avoid what he called “tangential issues,” such as discussions about tax cuts or the deficit, during the hearing, Kolbe said he would demand accountability from the administration.
For example, he wants to see that “benchmarks” or requirements that the administration report periodically to the committee about how it is spending the money and what goals are being achieved with it, are built into the spending legislation.
Kolbe also wants to ensure that the final bill has provisions for competitive bidding of all contracts to private companies, something that was not done initially, resulting in the granting of a huge contract to Halliburton earlier in the year.
Bremer assured the Senate panel that all contracts granted to corporations would be made in an “open and fair bidding process consistent with U.S. law.”
After Bremer’s first appearance on the war supplemental, and subsequent private meeting with GOP Senators, Republican leaders were also quick to shout down Democratic calls to turn some reconstruction grants into loans.
“I can’t imagine why Iraq can’t do what other countries have done in the past, to collateralize their oil revenues,” Daschle said. “We’re told that they may be the second-largest potential producer of oil in the world. Why not collateralize that oil over the next 20 years, use the resources that can be generated from that financial transaction and find the funds necessary to rebuild the country?” he asked.
Frist, echoing Bremer’s testimony, said that the United States should not pile more debt onto Iraq, which already owes in excess of $200 billion to foreign creditors.
“It’s not a good idea,” Frist said. If Iraq is to become a robust economy where capitalism flourishes under a democratic government, the United States must help it to first get on its feet and not further saddle the Iraqi people with overwhelming debt, he added.
Democrats also suggested that Bush prod Iraq’s creditors to forgive its debt but Frist would not commit to pushing Bush to do so.
“It’s premature” to look at the debt forgiveness issue, Frist said, adding that U.S. officials are not even sure exactly how much is owed, to whom, and under which previous Iraqi government loans were made.
The idea of offsets has also been floated but GOP leaders are not warming to that either.
“I would like to see offsets but I don’t know where you’re going to come up with $22 billion that will pass the House or the Senate,” House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) said.
Ben Pershing contributed to this report.