GOP Plans Week-Long Offensive About Defense

Posted June 21, 2004 at 6:59pm

As both chambers prepare to pass war-related spending and authorization bills this week, Republican leaders will be taking the offensive on defense.

With the Bush administration preparing to hand over control of Iraq to a newly established Iraqi government next week, Republicans are trying to spin any positive news out of Iraq in an effort to undermine the Democrats’ message — echoed in large part by the national media — that Iraq is in chaos.

[IMGCAP(1)] Of course, with the beheadings of two American hostages, seemingly daily car bombings in Baghdad,

and other terrorist activity in the Middle East, Democrats aren’t having a hard time making their case.

To counter all that bad news, House and Senate GOP leaders hope to foment good news by passing the $400 billion-plus Defense Department spending bill on both floors this week.

“The key message is that we’re providing all the resources for all the troops in the field,” said Jon Scofield, spokesman for the House Appropriations Committee.

And there’s a bonus. The timing of these efforts near July Fourth allows Republicans to play to patriotism at home while tying it to the Bush administration’s endeavor to help Iraqis create their very own democracy.

“As America prepares to celebrate our independence, we’ll be renewing our commitment to the Iraqi people” to stabilize their country and help foster freedom, said Greg Crist, spokesman for the House Republican Conference.

Crist noted that passing the Defense spending bill also is “a good pivot point for our Members to go home on” — especially for Members with military bases in their districts or those with large defense contractors.

Meanwhile, House Republican aides are furiously trying to set up a press conference this week with Secretary of State Colin Powell or Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to help tie together three semi-related ideas: Congressional action on Pentagon spending, America’s independence from 18th-century Britain, and the transfer of power in Iraq.

Even though July Fourth isn’t for another two weeks, and even though June 30 handover of power in Iraq still a week away, lawmakers will have to talk about it this week because they’ll be on vacation from Washington — or as they like to say, at home for their “district work periods” — as those events unfold.

Specifically, House leaders will be highlighting just how the extra $25 billion they set aside for the Iraq war will be used to protect U.S. troops. (They may, at the same time, try to keep listeners from wondering why the roughly $400 billion included in the Pentagon spending bill this year won’t be enough.)

As for that $25 billion, by Scofield’s account, $500 million will buy 300,000 sets of body armor, $674 million will provide 3,000 armored Humvees, $200 million will go toward retrofitting 2,900 supply vehicles with armor, and $315 million will pay for 496 million rounds of small-caliber ammunition, according to Scofield.

Over in the Senate, Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) may put on an all-Defense-all-the-time show.

Whereas the House is expected to pepper their defense message with votes on budget enforcement, intelligence authorization, and energy and water appropriations, Frist is preparing to sandwich passage of the Defense authorization bill — considered likely for Tuesday night or Wednesday morning — with a possible three-day marathon debate on Defense appropriations.

Theoretically, all of that would occur before the Senate leaves for the recess this Friday.

Frist has not yet secured the blessing of Senate Appropriations Chairman Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), who also chairs the Defense subcommittee, to go forward with the Defense spending bill on the floor this week.

Stevens’ reluctance has stemmed from the extended debate on the Defense authorization bill, said a senior Senate GOP aide. But the aide noted that Stevens’ decision to mark up his Defense appropriations measure today in both subcommittee and full committee indicates his increased willingness to let Frist bring it to the floor this week.

If Stevens balks, then the other options for floor time are the Homeland Security spending measure or a bill to send more class-action lawsuits to federal courts, the senior Senate GOP aide said.

But assuming Defense week is “on,” Frist’s ability to finish the work on time will depend not just on lawmakers’ desire to leave town for the recess, but also on Members’ fears of the political fallout back home if they leave the all-important Defense spending bill flapping in the wind for a week.

And if recent history is any guide, it’s a good bet that Senators will begin to lose that fighting spirit as soon as the specter of a Saturday session appears likely.

Still, it’s not exactly going to be smooth sailing for Frist, even if he does manage to get out of town in time for his own reported trip to a NATO summit in Istanbul.

Routinely, House Democrats are forced to make their political points with the oft-ignored “motion to recommit” — a procedural maneuver in which they try to send a bill back to committee and have it changed into the Democratic version. But Democratic Senators have been attracting big headlines with political-message amendments to the Defense authorization bill during the nearly four weeks it has been on the Senate floor.

And this week will be no different. For example, Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.) plans to press for a vote on his proposal to open up Delaware’s Dover Air Force base to photojournalists who want snapshots of coffins holding the remains soldiers killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

An amendment by Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) that would require President Bush to supply Congress with a detailed “exit strategy” for Iraq also may come up on either the authorization bill or the spending measure.