Petraeus Visit Sparks Debate
Pelosi Initially Rejected Offer
The top military commander in Iraq will make a rare visit to Capitol Hill next week but House Democratic leaders — unlike their Senate counterparts — initially declined the Defense Department’s offer of a Members-only closed-door briefing with Army Gen. David Petraeus, according to Congressional and administration sources.
A spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) at first acknowledged Tuesday that the Pentagon’s request to have Petraeus give a House briefing had been denied due to “scheduling conflicts” next week. Later on Tuesday, Pelosi’s office contacted Roll Call stating that the Speaker was now working to set up a session.
“We intend to schedule a meeting for Members of the House to hear from Gen. Petraeus on April 26th,” said Pelosi spokesman Nadeam Elshami.
It will be Petraeus’ first trip to the Capitol since he was confirmed to his current post by the Senate in January. His visit comes at a politically sensitive time for Congressional Democrats, who are working to bring to the floor next week a $120-billion plus war funding bill that President Bush has vowed to veto in its current form.
According to an administration official, Pelosi and Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) initially declined recent requests from the Defense Department to schedule a briefing on either Wednesday or Thursday of next week.
The Pentagon first approached Armed Services Committee aides to set up a briefing, but panel aides said they were “too busy” to schedule a meeting next week, the administration official said. A second attempt to set up a briefing with the Speaker’s office was likewise declined. A spokeswoman for Armed Services had not responded at press time.
“It’s puzzling that for the first time that Gen. Petraeus is in the country since he was unanimously confirmed by the Senate that the House has declined an offer to talk to him. We would hope that they would reconsider,” the official said before Pelosi reversed course Tuesday and agreed to set up a House-wide meeting with Petraeus next Thursday.
In contrast, Senate aides confirmed Tuesday that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) had accepted the invitation and a briefing open to all Senators is scheduled for April 25.
It is no coincidence that Petraeus’ weeklong visit coincides with a potential vote on the supplemental, which has drawn sharp opposition from Bush and Congressional Republicans because it includes benchmarks and provisions on troop withdrawal supported by Democrats.
It is possible that the supplemental could be on the House floor just as Petraeus arrives on Capitol Hill, where he likely will argue that the current strategy in Iraq is working and deserves more time — and money — to succeed.
Petraeus is tasked with implementing Bush’s war strategy, which most notably called for a controversial 21,500-troop increase earlier this year to boost the U.S. efforts to stabilize the nation.
In a House resolution approved Feb. 16, the decision was condemned in a nearly party-line 246-182 vote, with 17 Republicans voting with Democrats to condemn the plan.
Democratic aides said the Pentagon’s request violated standard briefing protocols, as such sessions usually are conducted on a regular basis by the Secretary of Defense or the Secretary of State. The aides said that sending Petraeus is an effort to blunt Democratic criticism of the war.
Pelosi’s initial decision to decline a chamber meeting with Petraeus prompted sharp criticism from House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).
“This demonstrates a willful refusal to obtain the facts, understand the consequences of withdrawal, or accept the possibility that the new plan for victory just may be showing signs of forward progress,” Boehner said in a statement to Roll Call. “Preventing Gen. Petraeus from briefing Members while delaying funds for the troops and advancing a bill that undermines their mission is downright irresponsible. If I were delaying funding for his soldiers, I wouldn’t want to look the General in the eyes either, but this is a dereliction of duty.”
Republican leaders held their weekly meeting at the White House on Tuesday morning, and the session largely was focused on the supplemental.
House and Senate GOP leaders continue to stand in lock step behind Bush despite waning public support for the war. One GOP aide said leaders reiterated Tuesday to the president, “You will have the support you need” on Capitol Hill in the first major legislative face-off between Bush and the new Democratic majority.
Congressional Democrats are equally resolute on the war, and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) strongly defended the supplemental and accused the White House of distorting the legislation’s intent.
“The president has misrepresented the supplemental on a number of occasions in two very important ways,” Hoyer told reporters Tuesday. “First of all, he said that we are not supporting the troops. In fact, as all of you know, all of the resources the president asked for for the troops is included in the supplemental passed in both the House and the Senate.”
Hoyer added, “Secondly, the president indicates that we are micromanaging the war. That is absolutely untrue. There is nothing in the bill which in any way undermines the ability of Gen. Petraeus or any of the commanders in the field at whatever level to take such action as they deem appropriate and necessary to achieve the success of their mission, period.”
A separate bipartisan White House meeting is scheduled today with House and Senate leaders for further negotiations on the bill.