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Rep. Hoyer Weighs Congress’ Plans for Iraq, Budget Issues

September 27, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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JUDY WOODRUFF: House Democrats elected Steny Hoyer as their leader soon after the November elections put them back in the majority for the first time in 12 years. Mr. Hoyer now is in his 14th term representing the Fifth District of Maryland. And he joins us from the Capitol.

Good to see you, Mr. Majority Leader.

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), House Majority Leader: Good to be with you, Judy.

JUDY WOODRUFF: To start off with, the defense secretary, Gates, yesterday went to the Congress and talked about needing an additional $42 billion to fight the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, 15 percent increase. It would bring the total to something like $190 billion. Is the administration going to get this from the House, from the Congress?

REP. STENY HOYER: Well, certainly the Congress is going to look at very carefully how they want to spend this money, Judy. This is an extraordinary sum of money.

We had indicated last year that we thought that the war costs ought to be included in the regular budget, but the administration continues to send up supplementals in very, very large sums to fund this war. So it’s very difficult to budget.

I know that Mr. Murtha, Mr. Obey will be looking at this very carefully to see exactly what they want to spend this money on. And I think there’s going to be great reluctance to approve that sum of money when the administration says we cannot invest sums in domestic issues, whether it’s education, policemen, firemen, health care, those issues we think are very important, as well. So there’s going to be a real close look given to this.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Well, Secretary Gates is saying, as I’m sure you know, that this money is needed, not only for the troops to take care of the troops, but he talks about those Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, the MRAPs. We just heard a report about them. Can Congress really say no to protecting the troops?

REP. STENY HOYER: Judy, we certainly don’t intend to say no, and the answer is we’re not going to say no. As you know, we passed a continuing resolution that has funding for those MRAP vehicles in it. And we will certainly fund MRAP vehicles as long as our troops are there, because we know that they are saving lives. And so we’re not going to cut on investments in saving lives and keeping our troops safe.

Timetables for Iraq funding

Steny Hoyer
D-Md.
We know that there have been billions and billions of dollars spent in Iraq that are unaccounted for, billions of dollars in Iraq that have not accomplished the objective that we were promised they would accomplish.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Mr. Gates and the president, also, Mr. Hoyer, talk about the pacing of this money. They say it's important that they get the money quickly in order to bring the war to a successful place. Are they going to get it as quickly as they say they need it?

REP. STENY HOYER: Judy, this is now five years into this war. Of course, it was projected to be very short. And, of course, the president in '03 said that the fighting was over and we had succeeded. That was not the case.

Frankly, the Defense Department is getting very, very substantial sums of money in the C.R., in the continuing resolution, that we expect to pass the Senate tonight, and we expect the president to sign it. So, first, let me say that we're going to make sure the troops have what they need as long as they are deployed in harm's way.

But that does not mean we're going to take simply the rubber-stamp approach that, frankly, previous Congresses have taken to the requests for expenditures in Iraq and Afghanistan. In fact, we want to look at very carefully whether or not sufficient funds are being spent in Afghanistan, where we believe the war on terror is most pointedly engaged with the Taliban and with al-Qaida.

JUDY WOODRUFF: So the president will get less -- it sounds like you're saying you believe the president will end up getting less than what he and the administration is asking for?

REP. STENY HOYER: I don't want to anticipate that at this point in time, but there is going to be a great interest on our side of the aisle, and I would hope on both sides of the aisle, to look at very carefully what the administration is asking for. We know that there have been billions and billions of dollars spent in Iraq that are unaccounted for, billions of dollars in Iraq that have not accomplished the objective that we were promised they would accomplish.

So what I'm saying, Judy, is there's going to be a very careful scrutiny of the Pentagon's request, and certainly there's not going to be approval of sums that are felt not to be necessary, either now or perhaps in the future. But we're going to make sure that the troops have whatever equipment, including MRAPs, whatever resources they need for as long as they are deployed in harm's way.

That's our position, and I know that Mr. Murtha and Mr. Obey and Speaker Pelosi share that position, as well.

Unifying Democrats

Steny Hoyer
D-Md.
People are frustrated by that, because the large majority of the American public wants a change in direction. The president does not agree with that. But we are still moving.

JUDY WOODRUFF: You're aware the Democrats have been criticized before now for, in effect, not having their act together, not being together, unified in an approach to this war, and funding for this war. Are you now saying that Democrats are ready to be united and to have one approach?

REP. STENY HOYER: Judy, I think that's a criticism that belies what has happened. We have passed a number of pieces of legislation through the House of Representatives dealing with the surge, the Skelton bill, which dealt with time lines and asking for redeployment and a new direction in Iraq. Those bills have enjoyed overwhelming Democratic support as they passed the House. And, very frankly, in the Senate, the Democrats have been fairly united as well, getting very significant numbers of votes on almost all the pieces of legislation.

The problem is not the Democrats. The problem is the Republicans, particularly in the United States Senate, have been unwilling to either allow legislation to move forward on the floor or, if it did, to not vote for a change in policy, a change in direction in Iraq. But I think the record will reflect that Democrats have, in fact, been unified.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And yet you have critics, in fact even among in your own party, who are out there looking at what's going on and saying, "Democrats need to do more." You were voted into the majority last November by the American electorate, and they're looking to the Democratic Party now in the majority to turn things around. And the question many of them are asking is, what's materially changed?

REP. STENY HOYER: Well, Judy, what's materially changed is, for one thing, there is very substantial oversight. The Republicans, either in the House or the Senate, can't stop that. There has been very significant oversight of where we're moving.

There was a report by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. That would not have happened if the Democrats were not in charge. Now, some will argue, well, it wasn't a very meaningful report or it didn't change direction. However, Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus both admitted that the dollars spent, that the surge had not accomplished its objective. That is, it had not brought a political resolution, which is the only resolution that General Petraeus thinks is possible in Iraq, and Admiral Crocker agrees on that.

So while we have not yet changed the president's policies because we have not been able to override his vetoes, we have made a substantial difference, heightened the debate, heightened the oversight, and we think are moving towards a change in direction in Iraq.

We're not there yet. People are frustrated by that, because the large majority of the American public wants a change in direction. The president does not agree with that. But we are still moving. We expect to move next week with additional legislation. We expect to move on the weeks thereafter on legislation.

The Senate has moved on legislation. The Biden proposal apparently passed in the Senate today. I didn't see the vote, but it passed pretty substantially in terms of a new direction, in this case, separating in three parts Iraq into the Kurdish, Sunni and Shia elements.

So we are making movement. It's not as fast as people would like, but we are staying after the objective of changing the direction.

The future of S-CHIP

Steny Hoyer
D-Md.
Frankly, I am very hopeful the president will change his mind and sign this bill. If he does not, however, then we will certainly try to override his veto, because we believe it is a veto that the American public will not support.

JUDY WOODRUFF: Let me quickly ask you about another important domestic priority, at least a spending issue before the Congress, and that's the children's health care program, so-called S-CHIP. The president is saying if Congress does send him legislation that's more money than he wants to see spent, he will veto it. Now, we understand the Senate has the votes to override the president's veto. Does the House?

REP. STENY HOYER: We're certainly going to work on getting the votes to override the veto because we think, on its merits, this bill ought to be signed into law. We would have liked to have gone further, but this bill adds four million children to coverage for health care in this country, bringing to a total of 10 million children of limited means whose families will be able to access health care on behalf of their children.

We think Americans believe that's the right thing to do, it's the moral thing to do, it's the practical thing to do to keep our children healthy.

Let me say this to remind the public -- and, Judy, you probably remember -- on the floor of the convention, the Republican convention in 2004, the president's pledge, if he were re-elected, it was going to be one of his major objectives to add -- and in his words -- "millions of children who are currently eligible for S-CHIP but are not yet covered" to the program. This bill does exactly that.

We are very hopeful that the president will listen to the American public, will listen to the significant majorities in both Houses. Two hundred and sixty-five members of the House of Representatives, a very large number of Republicans voted to expand the CHIP program and add these four million children to coverage so that they can access health care.

Frankly, I am very hopeful the president will change his mind and sign this bill. If he does not, however, then we will certainly try to override his veto, because we believe it is a veto that the American public will not support and will want overridden.

The president's resistance to S-CHI

Steny Hoyer
D-Md.
Seventy-five percent of the children in the CHIP program are in private insurance, and it's interesting that, although the president brings this up, the private insurers association has endorsed this bill.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And, quickly, to the president's argument that this is -- it's a mistake to move away from an emphasis on private health insurance?

REP. STENY HOYER: Seventy-five percent of the children in the CHIP program are in private insurance, and it's interesting that, although the president brings this up, the private insurers association has endorsed this bill. They believe it's the right way to go. The American Medical Association thinks it's the right way to go. AARP, the American Association of Retired Persons, thinks it's the right way to go, the American Hospital Association.

I could go on and list many, many more organizations that believe the policy that is incorporated in the children's health insurance bill is a policy that America ought to adopt. I hope the president will listen to them.

JUDY WOODRUFF: We're going to leave it there, the House majority leader, Steny Hoyer, thank you for being with us.

REP. STENY HOYER: Thank you, Judy.