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Senators Draft Bipartisan Bill on Iraq War Funding

May 9, 2007 at 6:25 PM EDT

GWEN IFILL: When it comes to congressional debate over spending for the war in Iraq, presidential veto threats are becoming common. As Kwame just reported, today’s came as House Democrats proposed a two-step funding plan.

Meanwhile, on the other side of Capitol Hill, two senators floated a bipartisan idea to pull troops out unless Iraqis meet certain benchmarks. The co-sponsors are Democrat Evan Bayh of Indiana, a member of the Armed Services and Intelligence Committees, and Republican Olympia Snowe of Maine, also a member of the Intelligence Committee. She has just returned from Baghdad. And they join us now.

Senator Snowe, we just heard national security adviser al-Rubaie say that, give them a chance, give Iraqis a chance to walk the last mile, but they’re in the last mile. You’ve just returned back from Baghdad. You just listened to his words. Do you think that that is realistic?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE (R), Maine: Well, the fact is, we are giving them the chance to walk that last mile for success by having the military surge in which more than 21,000 troops have been deployed. It’s not been fully implemented. There will be more to be completed in July.

And the purpose of the surge is to give the Iraqi government the latitude and the flexibility to achieve the political solutions and compromises that’s so necessary to effect national reconciliation.

The fact is, Prime Minister Maliki promised last September that he would pursue an ambitious national reconciliation plan and, in fact, that many of these initiatives, including the de-Baathification, the oil revenue sharing, provincial elections, would be completed by the end of December of ’06 or early in January of ’07. And that simply hasn’t happened.

They haven’t demonstrated the sense of urgency that’s so essential. And, in fact, you know, the protracted and prolonged, you know, debate over the questions of political benchmarks only encourages the insurgencies and the militias. And that’s the problem. The government has to unite and demonstrate to all the Iraqi people that they represent a national agenda and not a sectarian agenda.

New proposal's benchmarks

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bayh, we also heard the national security adviser say that they are working on the benchmarks. They just don't know if they can meet Washington's timetable. Tell us about the benchmarks in your proposal and whether they comport in any way, fit with what the national security adviser just said they are going to be able to accomplish.

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), Indiana: Well, first, Gwen, a fair amount of skepticism is in order when they say these things. As Senator Snowe just pointed out, we've heard this before. And yet there has not been adequate progress, so we have to focus on what they do, not what they say.

Many of the benchmarks included in our approach, a hydrocarbon law, revisiting de-Baathification, looking at the relationship between the central government and the provinces, are also on their agenda.

But I have to say, I was pleased to hear him say they're not going on a two-month vacation. But the fact that they had even planned that shows that there's not the sense of urgency, the immediacy. People are dying in the streets.

Their country is in risk of devolving into a full-fledged civil war, and they just don't seem to be focused on the kind of progress that is necessary. So the bottom line in all this is, we do share the same objectives. We have many of the same benchmarks, but they've got to get on with it, because we can't do this for them.

GWEN IFILL: Well, Senator Snowe, what is it in the legislation you are proposing that would guarantee that they would be able to get those benchmarks met? Why not support something that would cut the funding? Why not support an idea to revoke the war authority, like Senator Clinton and Senator Byrd have suggested?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, I think that this is an important point. I think it's critical to make sure that we can achieve success in Iraq, if at all possible.

Central to that success is a political resolution to the question. There wasn't one military commander or leader that indicated during my visit that a military solution was the only solution to the problem. The military surge really will affect the political surge.

And it's up to the Iraqis to determine whether or not they're going to pursue the political consensus that's going to be so critical to unifying the country, and that's what it's all about. And we haven't a sense from within the Iraqis themselves as to whether or not they're aiming, you know, to achieve the kind of solution that's so important to put us on the path towards national reconciliation. And that's what this is all about at this point.

Finding a 'center ground'

GWEN IFILL: Senator Bayh, Senator Snowe just mentioned a political consensus, speaking in terms of what the Iraqis have to achieve. How about you? Is it possible that this approach is going to be able to get any kind of political consensus? In short, is this able to pass the Senate?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, Gwen, I hope so. And the fact that Olympia and I are working on it together is a good sign. And I think there are a fair number of other like-minded Democrats and Republicans who realize that things are not going well. We need a different approach. And we have to find some common ground.

You know, there are some people on one side who want to stay indefinitely. That won't work. There are some people on another side who want to leave tomorrow, irrespective of the consequences. That won't work either. So we're trying to find that sensible center ground that will head us in a different direction, that will put the pressure on the Iraqis where it belongs, and bring something to this effort that has not been there all along, which is accountability for results and real consequences if those results aren't there.

So I'm hopeful that this may be the seeds of that kind of consensus-building, but it's difficult, as you know, in a polarized political setting.

GWEN IFILL: You mentioned earlier this week that you thought that polarized political setting, that is to say the presidential campaign, might be working against efforts to find compromise. Why is that?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, you know, there are several members of the Senate who are running for president. As a matter of fact, Olympia and I may be two rare people here, senators who aren't.

But the problem, Gwen, is that the bases of the two parties are -- there's just a canyon separating them. And I respect the emotions that are involved there, but if we're going to actually not just argue across the canyon but begin to bridge it and move in a better direction, we've got to find some common ground.

And I hope that our effort will be the beginning of that. And I think that there is a desire on the part of a majority of the Senate to accomplish that. And we're going to try.

Working with the White House

GWEN IFILL: Senator Snowe, there also seems to be a pretty big canyon between what any member of Congress has proposed about this and the White House. We started this segment by talking about the latest presidential veto threat. Do you have any reason to believe or have you gotten any communication from the White House which makes you believe that perhaps this bill would not draw a veto threat, as well?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, you know, I've encouraged the White House in my conversations to understand, as Senator Bayh indicated, that there is a willingness on the part of individuals on both sides of the political aisle who really do want to effect change and to work this through, to ensure the funding for the troops and then, secondly, an overall resolution to this monumental question, and the people of this country deserve that.

And so I've encouraged them to work, you know, in the conversations with the bipartisan leadership and to understand that, you know, we reflect the will of the American people, with respect to the fact that we have not seen the kind of results that should be accomplished in Iraq, and that really is up to the Iraqi government. They have to make a decision as to whether or not they're prepared to seize their own destiny to achieve the results that are so essential to unifying Iraq. It has to come from within.

GWEN IFILL: Pardon me. So, Senator, in this piece of legislation that you have co-sponsored, where is the carrot and where is the stick to make this happen?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, may I say that the carrot has been the military surge. And that's what I indicated to al-Hakim, who is the leader of the Shia party that has the predominant number of seats in the council of representatives.

The fact is, the whole goal and purpose of the surge was to give the Iraqi government time to breathe, give them the space to work through the political challenges, to reach a resolution that puts them on the pathway towards national reconciliation.

The biggest challenge within Iraq, Gwen, is the fact that people aren't sure whom they can trust. And so they need to know that their political leadership is willing to stand up and to represent all of the Iraqis, not just perpetuate a sectarian agenda.

And I did notice that the national security adviser never indicated anything about the sectarian violence that has enmeshed even our troops in Baghdad. I mean, you know, here we have this military surge, more than 21,000 troops, more coming to up to 30,000 in total, enmeshed in a sectarian clash because they have been unwilling to disarm their militias and they've been unwilling to advance a national agenda that is representative of all the people.

A last chance in Iraq?

GWEN IFILL: Well, then, Senator Bayh, if you are skeptical of the ability of the Iraqi government to meet the benchmarks that have been set, if you are worried about the rise in sectarian violence and the degree to which U.S. troops are being enmeshed in it, why not support legislation that would simply say, "Let's get out now. There's nothing we can do or expect of your partners in Iraq which will make the situation better"?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, Gwen, what our approach calls for are them not just saying but actually doing the things that are necessary for there being some kind of stability in that country so we can begin the process of leaving, within an acceptable condition.

But ours also says -- our legislation also says that, if they don't do that by mid-September, when General Petraeus has indicated we ought to have an idea about whether this is working or not, that then he has to come before us and put forward a plan for beginning to, you know, reorient the troops to a different mission.

And so what we're basically saying here is you've got one last bite at the apple, but words alone aren't going to be enough. We want to see real progress. If we don't see it, then there are be consequences, and that consequence is beginning to move in a different direction that is more likely to be successful.

GWEN IFILL: And, Senator Snowe, the same question to you. Why not pull out now? And as you know, there have been a lot of loud voices on either extreme of this debate. We heard them on this program last night. Why do you think that anyone is listening to the moderate voices such as yours and Senator Bayh's?

SEN. OLYMPIA SNOWE: Well, you know, I think they should, because I think it's in the interest of America, it's in the interest of Iraq, the Middle East, and in the global community to have it succeed in Iraq. And that is now the purpose of the deployed troops for the surge, to give them room to maneuver and to achieve the political benchmarks that they themselves have indicated are essential to national reconciliation.

So I think that, obviously, it would be premature to be withdrawing when we haven't even completed the surge and to have the political surge be in tandem with the military surge. That's what this is all about.

So we want to encourage the Iraqi government to understand that time is of the essence and they really have to make a determination and also to muster the resolve to get the job done here and now. It's in their interest to do it. The longer they prolong it, the more they give openings to the insurgency and to the militias.

GWEN IFILL: And, Senator Bayh, what about your answer to the question about whether anyone is listening to moderate voices in this day?

SEN. EVAN BAYH: Well, the country is awfully polarized right now, Gwen. There's no question about that. But if we're going to, as I said before, not just not argue across the canyon but actually begin to head in a better direction, it's going to be by finding some common ground, taking the best ideas on both sides, implementing them, and, you know, putting the pressure on the Iraqis.

If they're not willing to take these steps to help themselves, we can't do it for them. And so I think, once the shouting dies down, people are going to realize that something has to get done. That's where they're going to look to those of us in the Senate to lead the way. And I'm pleased that Olympia has stepped up. And we're going to try and do just that.

GWEN IFILL: Sen. Evan Bayh, the Democrat, Sen. Olympia Snowe, the Republican, thank you both very much.


SEN. EVAN BAYH: Thank you.