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Freshmen Lawmakers Advocate Different Strategies in Iraq

July 25, 2007 at 6:35 PM EDT
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GWEN IFILL: Last fall, we spoke with five newly elected members of the 110th Congress about what they expected from Washington.

Now, eight months later, with the war in Iraq still dominating the debate on Capitol Hill, we check in with them again.

We’re joined by four of the original five, plus Democrat Carol Shea-Porter of New Hampshire. Also here are Democrat Tim Walz of Minnesota, Democrat Ed Perlmutter of Colorado, Republican Kevin McCarthy of California, and Republican David Davis of Tennessee.

You have all just come from a vote on Capitol Hill in the House on whether to move American — whether to make sure that American bases do not remain permanently in Iraq.

I just want to go around the table, starting with you, Mr. Perlmutter, and ask, how did you vote?

REP. ED PERLMUTTER (D), Colorado: I voted to not allow them to be permanent. And pretty much everybody in the Congress voted that same way. It was…

GWEN IFILL: It was a big vote.

REP. ED PERLMUTTER: Yes.

REP. DAVID DAVIS (R), Tennessee: I did vote yes today. But the reason I voted yes is, it’s already current law. I think we need to make those decisions at a current time, not at a future time. So, it didn’t change the law. It’s already on the books.

GWEN IFILL: You voted for it and why, Carol Shea-Porter?

REP. CAROL SHEA-PORTER (D), New Hampshire: Yes, I don’t want permanent bases either.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY (R), California: I voted for it, but it shows the whole debate of Iraq is more political than it is about finding a solution.

GWEN IFILL: In what way?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: It’s already law. We’re trying to run as the generals. And what did it change for the outcome of today finding a solution? There was none. But what did it do? It ran political press back home.

REP. TIM WALZ (D), Minnesota: Well, I voted for it. And I disagree a little bit with Kevin on this. I would say the six months here taught me that everything here is a process, not an event. And this is one more step in that process of catching Congress up where 70 percent of the American people are, knowing we need a massive change in the direction in Iraq.

And this was another step to make sure our colleagues are accountable to their voters back home to move us in that direction.

Congressional trips to Iraq

Rep. Kevin McCarthy
R-Calif.
I saw challenges, but I saw some successes. I went to the Anbar Province, the most dangerous province we've had, and Ramadi and Fallujah.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Davis, you were in Iraq just last weekend. What did you see?

REP. DAVID DAVIS: Actually, we're making tremendous progress. Things are going well. The men and women in uniform, we should be very proud of.

We need to remember that the men and women in uniform volunteered to go. And they're -- we have a volunteer force. I heard it over and over from enlisted personnel, all the way up to the officer ranks. We need to finish this job. If we don't finish this job in Iraq, it will affect American families in the homeland.

We have already seen that al-Qaida, others that have a ideology of hate, are willing to kill Americans in the homeland. And if we give them a base of operation to grow that ideology, it will affect Americans in the homeland in the future. We have to win this battle. And now is the time to win it.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Shea-Porter, you were there in March. Did you see the same thing?

REP. CAROL SHEA-PORTER: No, absolutely not.

As a matter of fact, I saw a country in chaos. I saw Shia and Sunni women that could not even look at one another or respond to each other's issues about children not being fed. I spoke to two generals who, within an hour, contradicted one another about the number of Iraqi police and soldiers we had to stand up.

I saw chaos. I saw wonderful American soldiers trying so hard to solve this. But I think I have to completely disagree with the assessment of my colleague, because none of the benchmarks have been met that the president set. None of the goals have been met. And they keep moving the goal posts.

I was told by General Petraeus in March that he would know in early summer if this surge, this escalation had worked. And now we're hearing another plan. They moved the goal posts continuously.

GWEN IFILL: Representative McCarthy, you were there at Easter time, I believe, just as the surge was beginning. What did you think?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: Well, I saw challenges, but I saw some successes. I went to the Anbar Province, the most dangerous province we've had, and Ramadi and Fallujah. I mean, Ramadi is the capital of al-Qaida.

And I sat with those who became police officers. One thing I found was, the Iraqis -- is much different from the world -- tribal leaders matter. I saw a change in the tribal leaders, where tribal leaders have sat down with us. Before, they weren't picking either side. Now they're sick of al-Qaida.

And they came forward and said, we want the Sunnis to participate. They became police officers. They started cleaning up their streets. Those are changes I'm looking for. They have to go much further. I mean, we can't do this alone. The Iraqi government does have to step up.

I saw a few changes there that were very successful. But Petraeus was very honest about the challenges as we move forward.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Perlmutter, when you were here with us last November, you said you hoped there would be a withdrawal plan in place that would take it back to the spring of '08.

REP. ED PERLMUTTER: Right, redeploy our troops by the spring of '08, yes.

GWEN IFILL: Is it still possible, based on what you -- the testimony you have now been exposed to?

REP. ED PERLMUTTER: Well, the testimony that we have had from the generals is, to redeploy in an orderly, methodical fashion is going to take six to eight months to 10 months.

And, so, with the president vetoing the redeployment plan that we presented to him a couple months ago, things have moved back. You know, the real question is, are we going to referee a religious civil war? And, if so, for how long and with how many troops? And that's not what we're hearing from the administration. They just say, give us more time, but no straight answer.

Cooperation between the parties

Rep. Tim Walz
D-Minn.
Maybe I underestimated the dominance of politics as it bleeds over into what governance should be, because the facts of the matter are...the situation in Iraq is deteriorating.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Walz, when you were here at the very beginning of your term, you said that this -- that Iraq perhaps could present a golden opportunity for agreement across party lines.

What do you say now?

REP. TIM WALZ: Well, I am still optimistic. Maybe I underestimated the dominance of politics as it bleeds over into what governance should be, because the facts of the matter are, whether it's the American people or whether it's our diplomatic or our intelligence community, the situation in Iraq is deteriorating.

It's weakened our positions against al-Qaida, and actually made this nation less secure, rather than more. And my big concern is, I will be going to Iraq shortly, but, from a little different perspective. I'm going with outgoing Secretary of the VA Nicholson, and to watch what's happening with our soldiers as they leave the battlefield wounded, move back through Germany into the United States, and how we give that care.

Another area that I just left a hearing that we didn't prepare for -- we didn't prepare for the aftermath. We didn't listen to the experts. We continue to try and base policy in Iraq on ideology. Nobody is doubting that the military is doing great things. Any time you put an American soldier, sailor, Marine or airman on the ground, they will do great things. They're building hospitals. They're building roads. They're doing all of that.

But they volunteered to be in the military, but they didn't volunteer to have poor leadership at the top that they have no control over. That's our job in Congress.

GWEN IFILL: And, yet, you say you're optimistic?

REP. TIM WALZ: Well, we have to be, because the alternative is not acceptable on this.

We're seeing progress made on al-Qaida when we're using good intelligence. We're using aggressive police forcing, whether that be what we saw broke up in the United Kingdom or the things at Fort Dix and some of those. There's no doubt in my mind that these people are still dangerous.

The thing that frustrates me most is, is, here we are, moving to six years, with Osama bin Laden still operating. The president makes tenuous connections between Osama bin Laden and operating in Iraq, when his own intelligence experts say, well, that's an over-stretch.

We need straight answers. We need to base it on reality and then we move this country forward. That's a -- that's reason that we all agree on.

GWEN IFILL: Representative McCarthy, what surprises you the most? In the -- the six months now that you have been a member of Congress, what has surprised you the most about this debate over Iraq and the degree to which members of Congress have been able to cooperate on finding a solution?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: I have found it's more about politics than about a solution.

I mean, I really think you shouldn't come from this perspective as a Republican or a Democrat. You should come as an American. And I find people on both sides of the aisle that want to have politics, that want to have another election on it, because they base -- they think they can win seats based upon it.

I was most frustrated in Congress when General Petraeus came here, and we had an open meeting for all members to come. You put your BlackBerrys away. You went inside. To me, I was very optimistic about it, because it was our opportunity put the guards away, sit and talk to the number-one person going forward, and see where we're going to go.

The speaker wouldn't come. Here's the one time...

Meeting with General Petraeus

Rep. Carol Shea-Porter
D-N.H.
Well, the problem that I'm having is that, every time we have a vote, we don't see anybody across the aisle to meet us halfway. We don't see a plan put out there. There's never been a plan for us to vote on.

GWEN IFILL: Speaker Pelosi.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: Speaker Pelosi would not show. The one time Republicans and Democrats are all in a room talking about the number-one subject in America, Iraq, talking with the general that just put together -- she would not show. To me, that was a -- that was a defining moment and a depressing moment.

REP. ED PERLMUTTER: But, Kevin, I have to jump in. We have now had three meetings. We started with that one. And, each time, we get lesser and lesser members of the administration, until the one that we had at the end of June, where the report we received was just completely dire.

You know, I said to them -- you know, we didn't get Petraeus. We didn't get Negroponte. We didn't get the people that are really making the decisions, the vice president. And it's just getting worse and worse. And they're not prepared to tell us about things, these things.

So, you know, it cuts both ways. We go to those member meetings so that we can make good decisions. We're getting reports that just point us in a direction that is really a downward spiral. And we have to change that.

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: Tell me the structure to get us to a solution. I came to Congress, all of us did, as freshmen. We weren't here prior that make that decision. Our decisions should be, how do we solve it?

GWEN IFILL: Well, let me direct that question to Representative Shea-Porter.

REP. CAROL SHEA-PORTER: Well, the problem that I'm having is that, every time we have a vote, we don't see anybody across the aisle to meet us halfway. We don't see a plan put out there. There's never been a plan for us to vote on.

All of the ideas are coming from the Democrats. And I would like to say, Speaker Pelosi has spoken to the generals and to the others very often. We're not getting anywhere. And the nation understands this. And that's why the Democrats have chosen to lead the way.

And we would appreciate it if we could get some more people on the other side of the aisle to listen to the American people. We're not doing well. We have these reports, and I don't see people flocking to read those intelligence reports. And they're critical. I sit on the Armed Services Committee. They get the same evidence. We all can look at the evidence.

And all the evidence states that we're in dire circumstances, that our Army is broken, at the straining point. And, yet, we see votes that do not reflect the reality. It's frustrating for us, too.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Davis, it sounds like this chasm is widening, not shrinking.

REP. DAVID DAVIS: I think that's right. I respectfully disagree.

And we talk about reading and seeing reports. Actually, I was in Iraq this past weekend. You can actually go see for yourself. You don't have to depend on someone else's opinion.

Kevin brought up Ramadi, the stronghold of Iraq.

Well, since you were over there in the spring, it's no longer the stronghold of -- of Iraq. I was actually there, walked down the street. There are 400,000 people who live in that city. When you were there in the spring, Kevin, it was the stronghold, wasn't it? People were being shot at, mortared, bombed, maimed.

I actually walked down the street into the marketplace on Saturday, and the young Iraqis, young boys and girls, coming up to the military.

The surge is working. It's doing exactly what it was intended to do. Those soldiers no longer live on base totally. They have actually moved out into the community of Ramadi. They have become neighbors to the people that live in Ramadi. And those people are coming up and -- and doing well in the community.

REP. TIM WALZ: I would respond to the surge working. The surge is a tactic, not a strategy. This surge was meant to open up a window of opportunity for the politicians and the diplomatic and economic side to find the true lasting solutions in this.

This is grabbing the tiger by the tail. We can secure every single street in Ramadi or Baghdad, but, at some point, we're going to have to let go of it. And -- and the Iraqi government has proven totally ineffective, whether it be on the oil revenues, the carbon, what they're going to do about sharing the wealth, or what they're going to do about with de-Baathification.

There was a reason those benchmarks were in there. The military will always do exactly what they are asked to do. The surge policy was to open up that window. It is open. It is closing. And not only is it closing; they're going to step away and go on vacation and let it slam shut.

REP. ED PERLMUTTER: I am optimistic. You know, just today's vote, which I didn't expect everybody -- and it may be because it's current law, but to have everybody say no permanent bases, we were all on the same page today. And I think...

Constituents' opinions on Iraq

Rep. David Davis
R-Tenn.
You're going to find some that say we ought to pull out. I don't think you're going to find 100 percent district on either side of those issues.

GWEN IFILL: Are you on the same page with your constituents?

REP. ED PERLMUTTER: Yes. I do a government at the grocery every other Saturday morning, where people come into the grocery store. It's their place. It's not my place. And the very -- the first thing on their mind is Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: What about that, Reverend -- Reverend.

GWEN IFILL: Representative Davis?

REP. DAVID DAVIS: Absolutely.

People in East Tennessee, we -- we're called the Volunteer State for a reason. And we have men and women in uniform that volunteer to go. And the people of East Tennessee are supportive.

GWEN IFILL: They're not conflicted?

REP. DAVID DAVIS: You know, I think, if you actually ask everybody around this table, you're going to find some people that are for completing the job. You're going to find some that say we ought to pull out. I don't think you're going to find 100 percent district on either side of those issues.

GWEN IFILL: What do your constituents tell you?

REP. CAROL SHEA-PORTER: New Hampshire knows that you can't even walk around the Green Zone anymore without wearing your flak jacket and your helmet. A few months ago, you could. That's supposed to be the most secure area in Iraq. And our soldiers have to wear their flak jackets. They understand that.

New Hampshire is a primary state. They are bright. They're tuned into everything. They want us out. There is a small minority that disagrees. And, of course, you know, they have a right to disagree. But the majority of New Hampshirites, and the majority of Americans, I would point out, want us out of Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: What do you hear in California?

REP. KEVIN MCCARTHY: I hear some on both sides.

But I will tell you, those who say pull out automatically, go back to what Tim Walz said. If there's an argument there wasn't a good plan, the first thing they will say, even if they want to pull out, first, make a plan, because I don't want to look at my 8-year-olds and tell them in a decade from now a president is going to ask them to go into the Middle East.

Think about it before you just automatically pull out. And that's where I have a disagreement in Congress, that we play politics with it. We think it's as easy as that. It's not. There's repercussions of what goes on and when our decisions are made.

REP. TIM WALZ: Well, I would agree with Kevin. The same could be said about not changing that position.

I think there's a false dichotomy of those who want to finish the job and those who want to pull out. No, we want to finish the right job. And this was simply the wrong job.

The problem -- I agree with Kevin exactly. And he knows. And we work together on this. I have talked about, it's not a matter of if and when. Those things are going to happen. Now we need to start talking about the how and what it's going to look like.

There definitely has to be a role for the United States to facilitate that. It's simply not in the role of running point through dangerous Baghdad neighborhoods in the middle of this religious civil war. That's where we differ.

We all agree that a failed Iraqi state is in no one's best interests. But hyperbole or conjecture -- one thing, especially when it comes from the administration, every single projection made by the administration has been wrong. Prudent people would say, after nearly five years of being wrong, perhaps we should listen to someone else.

REP. DAVID DAVIS: The Iraqi government really does need to step up. And it's a different mind-set than we're used to.

Can you imagine being back in Colorado, and somebody in Washington making a decision on which street is actually paved back in his city in Colorado? It wouldn't make a lot of sense if he didn't have some input.

That's what goes on over in Iraq. They have a centralized government. They need to get those decisions out of Baghdad, across the country. It's starting to work. There was 150 sheiks last week came together. It's not a civil war, as much as some people would want you to believe. They are starting to come together now and understand that we have got to get out of that centralized government in Iraq, and start to get down to where you have the different cities having input.

REP. CAROL SHEA-PORTER: They're talking about IEDs in Baghdad and death and destruction. And I think that, if you can't hold the heart of a country, Baghdad, then we have got very critical problems.

GWEN IFILL: We could continue talking forever. And I'm sure you will. In fact, you will all be back to talk with us some more.

Thank you all very much, Congressman Ed Perlmutter, David Davis, Carol Shea-Porter...

REP. CAROL SHEA-PORTER: Thank you.

GWEN IFILL: ... Kevin McCarthy, and Tim Walz, lawmakers all.

Thank you.

REP. ED PERLMUTTER: Thank you, Gwen.

REP. CAROL SHEA-PORTER: We enjoyed it.