President Bush Challenges Democrats on Iraq War Funding
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GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: It has now been 57 days since I requested that Congress pass emergency funds for our troops. Instead of passing clean bills that fund our troops on the front lines, the House and Senate have spent this time debating bills that undercut the troops, by substituting the judgment of politicians in Washington for the judgment of our commanders on the ground, setting an arbitrary deadline for withdrawal from Iraq, and spending billions of dollars on pork barrel projects completely unrelated to the war.
I made it clear for weeks that, if either the House or Senate version of this bill comes to my desk, I will veto it. And it is also clear from the strong support for this position in both houses that the veto would be sustained.
Still, the Democrats in Congress continue to pursue their bills. And now they have left Washington for spring recess without finishing the work.
If Congress fails to pass a bill I can sign by mid-April, the Army will be forced to consider cutting back on equipment, equipment repair, and quality-of-life initiatives for our Guard and Reserve forces. These cuts would be necessary because the money will have to be shifted to support the troops on the front lines.
The Army also would be forced to consider curtailing some training for Guard and Reserve units here at home. This would reduce their readiness and could delay their availability to mobilize for missions in Afghanistan and Iraq.
The bottom line is this: Congress’s failure to fund our troops on the front lines will mean that some of our military families could wait longer for their loved ones to return from the front lines. And others could see their loved ones headed back to the war sooner than they need to.
That is unacceptable to me, and I believe it is unacceptable to the American people.
I will now answer some questions.
JOURNALIST: Mr. President, you say the Democrats are undercutting troops the way they have voted. They’re obviously trying to assert more control over foreign policy. Isn’t that what the voters elected them to do in November?
GEORGE W. BUSH: I think the voters in America want Congress to support our troops in harm’s — who are in harm’s way. They want money to the troops, and they don’t want politicians in Washington telling our generals how to fight a war. It’s one thing to object to the policy, but it’s another thing when you have troops in harm’s way not to give them the funds they need.
So my attitude is: Enough politics. They need to come back, pass a bill. If they want to play politics, fine. They continue to do that, I will veto it, but they ought to do it quickly. They ought to get to the bill to my desk as quickly as possible, and I’ll veto it, and then we can get down to the business of funding our troops without strings and without withdrawal dates.
Reaction to president's comments
JIM LEHRER: And to Margaret Warner.
MARGARET WARNER: Reaction now to the president's remarks from two senators influential in the Iraq war debate: Rhode Island Democrat Jack Reed is a member of the Armed Services Committee. And Republican Richard Shelby of Alabama serves on the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee.
And welcome to you both.
Senator Reed, the president had some tough words for you Democrats today, for not getting him a bill, irresponsible, more interested in playing politics than taking care of the troops. What's your reaction?
SEN. JACK REED (D), Rhode Island: Well, the American public sent a clear signal that they want this strategy in Iraq changed. That's what this bill is about. I'd point out that, last year, the Republican Congress didn't send him the bills until June so he could sign it.
So we're not, I think, in danger of putting the military behind the curve, in terms of funding, but we are in danger of a strategy that seems to be more of the same, the status quo. It doesn't appear to be working, and the American people are quite concerned about it.
In fact, our recommendations follow very closely to the Iraqi Study Group, a bipartisan group. So I think the president is the one who's really playing politics, trying to interpose the troops between a review and a revision of a strategy that's long overdue.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Shelby, do you think it's the president who's playing politics here or the Democrats, as the president says?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY (R), Alabama: Well, you can't divorce Washington from politics on either side, but what I think we should focus on is this: Our troops are in harm's way. We've got a new commander there. We've got more troops coming in every day to Iraq.
I believe the next six or seven months are very crucial and critical to the well-being of what's going to happen in Iraq. Will we be able to stabilize the area? I hope so. General Petraeus tells me that he believes he can do it.
If we can do this, then I believe that then some diplomatic overtures will come about. That's natural.
If we're not successful there, then we'll have to reassess it. But I think we should do everything we can to support the troops now, to give them what they need, not forever, but for the next seven or eight months and see how they do.
I believe they're making marginal success improvement now, but they've got to do a lot better. But this putting a deadline to start withdrawing is a date to surrender. Nobody in America wants that; I know the Senate doesn't want that.
No 'intent to delay'
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Reed, let me just go back to what the president was saying, though, here about how quickly he wants to get this bill. What is the fastest timetable you can envision for getting him even the first iteration of this bill, which he says he's going to veto?
SEN. JACK REED: Well, we have to confer with our colleagues in the House and come up with a language, a conference report, and then send it to the president. I hope we do that as quickly as possible.
And I don't think there's any intent to delay; I think the intent is to get this issue moved forward as quickly as possible.
MARGARET WARNER: But you all are out for a week on recess. The House doesn't get back until April 16th. So, realistically, what are we looking at?
SEN. JACK REED: Well, I would hope that we'd be deliberating, at least informally, in the interim and that we could send a bill up very quickly after the 16th.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Senator Shelby, you sit on the Appropriations Subcommittee. Is the president right that even delaying until mid- to late-April is going to cause -- well, what impact is it going to have on troop readiness and rotation?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I don't really know for sure, because there's a lot of money they can move around. But I believe that, if we don't have the bill there by the first of May, the end of April, that you're going to cause problems, and they're going to have to shift money around, and that's not a good thing. It's not a good message, either.
I sit on that conference committee as a member of the Defense Appropriations Committee. I would like to expedite that as soon as possible, get it to the president. If we can, knock this language out that's offensive to a lot of us, then send it down, let the president veto it, and then we'll go from there.
The sooner the better; we should not play games at all in situations like this.
MARGARET WARNER: So is this a real fight, Senator Reed, or does everybody know exactly what's going to happen?
SEN. JACK REED: Well, I think positions have been staked out but the hope is that there will be some discussion, and maybe it is a hope with not a high probability at this point, but a hope that we can talk to the White House, that they can reach out.
There may be language that they could accept. That's not something I want to dismiss up front. And I agree with Richard. I don't think there should be any incentive to delay this to gain advantage; we should move forward as quickly as possible.
MARGARET WARNER: Let me ask you about the other charge that the president made, which I asked Senator Shelby about, which is that a delay, even until late April or early May, is really going to start to affect troop readiness, the ability to rotate fresh troops in?
SEN. JACK REED: Well, let me just begin by saying, under the president's leadership, the readiness of the Army has declined precipitously. There's some reports suggesting that two-thirds of our brigades are not fully ready. They will do the mission when called upon, but their equipment, their personnel status has been eroded by these constant rotations.
The president now is very concerned about readiness. I think he should have been concerned about this many months ago.
Senator Shelby is right. I think, if this is prolonged, then the military will reprogram money, will find ways, but that is disruptive of their operations.
The Congressional Research Service suggests they don't have to begin to do that until May. And again, last year, the supplementary was passed in June. So I think we have some time to debate the policy issues here, the change in strategy, which is critical.
Facing the presidential veto
MARGARET WARNER: Now, if the president does veto this, if it goes with the timetable and he vetoes it, then what are the Democrats going to do? Are you going to send him a clean bill?
SEN. JACK REED: You know, I think that has not yet been determined. That is one of those things that I think we're going to have to sit down within the caucus.
I would say, though, that the intention would be certainly not to deprive forces in the field of the means necessary to do their jobs and protect themselves.
But this is a very critical debate about the strategy. And if we're looking at sort of six months more, and then we'll take a look at it, I think we should take a look at it right now. And I think, in the long run, the strategy, the best strategy is the one that's incorporated in that bill.
MARGARET WARNER: So, Senator Shelby, how do you think the American public should understand this battle that we're all covering so avidly here? I mean, is this a real fight? Is it each side sending messages to each other? What is it?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, it's a struggle. It's a critical struggle. And part of it is, there are a lot of people in the Congress trying to manage, micromanage, our military on the field.
We can't do this. We can't have 535 members of Congress as commander-in-chief. We have a president who's commander-in-chief.
And although I don't know myself what will ultimately be the outcome in Iraq, I hope it's going to be very -- we're going to bring stability, and we're going to ultimately be leaving there. I think we should give our troops every, every opportunity to succeed, and the next six, seven months are critical. We should not send them an ambiguous message.
MARGARET WARNER: So you're saying that, by setting any kind of timetable, Congress really is trying to micromanage?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Absolutely. And I think you're sending the date that we're going to surrender, in other words, we're going to leave. And the troop, it will undermine them. I think it's a mistake; that's my judgment. I believe that we have enough Republicans and at least one Democrat, in Senator Lieberman, to sustain any veto.
MARGARET WARNER: Is that what you're trying to do, micromanage?
SEN. JACK REED: No, not really. I think we're looking at the issue from a strategic standpoint. And what are the vital interests of the United States? What can we do to help stabilize the situation?
And, you know, I certainly share Richard's hopes that we can stabilize the situation and begin this redeployment.
And I think it's critical to point out that, in the version of the Senate that we passed, and I think the House version also, there are residual missions we recognize, training Iraqi security forces, counterterrorism operations against al-Qaida elements in Iraq, and also force protection, which would endure beyond the redeployment of combat brigades.
MARGARET WARNER: But you do -- the end date as a goal, your bill does require the president begin withdrawing troops within 120 days. Now, is that really Congress's role to be setting that kind of a...
SEN. JACK REED: Well, I think it's the demands of the American people. I think they want to see this situation resolved. And I think also, too, when it comes to the critical decisions -- and I think the critical decisions have to be made by the Iraqis.
And one aspect of this approach is making clear to them that we're not going to be an enduring force forever, that they have to settle many difficult issues. And I think the best signal is one of that we begin a redeployment, but we do have continuing missions, so they're not left alone, but they have to step up really and make critical decisions.
Congress' role in the debate
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Shelby, what do you think is the proper role of the party in Congress that's in the leadership, but opposes the president's policy, when the voters seem to have spoken fairly clearly, at least in their unhappiness with the war, what is Congress's role here, if what the Democrats are proposing you think is inappropriate?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: I think it's inappropriate what they're proposing. I think it would embolden our enemy. And I think it's saying that we have 535 members of the House and the Senate, basically, that are going to be commander-in-chief. You can't have that.
MARGARET WARNER: But if I may, how should they then express what their voters told them they wanted expressed?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Well, we're all frustrated by the war. We're all frustrated that we had that early success and have had so many mistakes made since.
But we're where we are there. And I think we should do everything as a member of Congress to try to bring success, bring stability to the area. We will know, as I said, six, seven, eight months at the most whether we're making real progress, not marginal progress.
And if we're not, we're going to have to really assess the whole situation. But until then, let's try to win this, let's try to bring stability here.
We have one commander-in-chief. I disagree with the commander-in-chief, the president, on a lot of things. But he is the commander-in-chief. And we have one commander on the ground over there; that's General Petraeus. I respect him. And I know Senator Reed does, too. We ought to give him every chance to succeed.
MARGARET WARNER: And why not give General Petraeus and the president five, six more months?
SEN. JACK REED: Well, in point of fact, this slow escalation, they won't get those forces in place totally until several more months from now. And I think really the critical decisions are not how many troops we have; it's what the Iraqis do, in terms of reconciliation, in terms of critical political decisions. And I'm very pessimistic that the Iraqis will make those decisions in a timely fashion.
But longer term, I think, as Richard does, we have to look at regional stability. And that regional stability -- the most encouraging note I've heard recently is the fact that the administration is actually sitting down and talking to Syria, to Iraq, to surrounding countries. And they planned another meeting.
This ultimately will be settled by a political decision, not simply by additional brigades of American fighting men and women.
MARGARET WARNER: Senator Shelby, are the Democrats and Republicans actually a little closer here than the public rhetoric suggests?
SEN. RICHARD SHELBY: Oh, I also -- I think you take Senator Reed and I, we work together on a lot of issues. We won't agree on everything. But on the substance, I'm sure we will agree that what's best for America, what's best for our troops, how do we do the best thing in our foreign policy, all of these things, I think we're together on substance.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, Senator Shelby and Senator Reed, thank you both.