- The Washington Times - Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Democrats are finding they have little leverage to force the administration to explain its position on Iraq to Congress, even as they see more chances to criticize the handling of postwar Iraq.

Administration officials are testifying before a half-dozen House and Senate committees this week in support of President Bush’s $87 billion emergency spending request for postwar Iraq, and Democrats are demanding answers about the expected length of time troops will be in Iraq, the potential costs and an accounting of why the situation remains so poor.

“The Congress has a constitutional responsibility and the American people want to know how their money is being spent,” said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, Maryland Democrat.

But Republicans control both chambers, and Democrats concede they can only ask the questions. And, even if the answers aren’t forthcoming, they will probably vote for the bill to show support for the troops.

“I’m not willing to vote against our troops in the field, and I feel an obligation to vote to finish” the job,” said Rep. John M. Spratt Jr., South Carolina Democrat.

He released a report yesterday that estimated the total cost of U.S. involvement could run anywhere from $179 billion if no more money is requested now, all the way to $418 billion if troops are still in Iraq in 2010.

The president’s spending request, covering costs for fiscal 2004, includes $20.3 billion for reconstructing Iraq and $66.7 billion for the military to continue the war on terror in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere.

Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, South Dakota Democrat, said the best opportunity for Democrats to take a stand is to split the bill into two parts: One bill would fund the U.S. military needs, and would get near-universal support; and one bill would fund reconstruction. That bill would be more contested.

“If it were bifurcated, I’m confident that there are a number of Republicans who would join Democrats in insisting first that the president have a plan,” he said, and went on to list the need for more international help, transparency in contracts related to Iraq and a “recognition to the priorities that we need here at home” as other criteria.

Republican leaders have rejected splitting the parts.

“They are inextricably linked and need to go hand in hand,” said Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, Tennessee Republican, adding that no Republicans have asked him to split the money.

Mr. Frist will try to move the bill as quickly as he can, and Sen. Ted Stevens, Alaska Republican and chairman of the Appropriations Committee, said the need is urgent. Mr. Stevens said the Defense Department needs the money as close to Oct. 1 — the start of the 2004 fiscal year — as possible, while the reconstruction money must be available by mid-December.

With polls showing the public increasingly uncertain about Mr. Bush’s handling of Iraq after the war, Democrats see an opportunity to push their case, and have stepped up their attacks.

It began last week when Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, Massachusetts Democrat, called the war a “fraud” and said Mr. Bush’s postwar policy amounted to “bribing” other nations to send support.

Mr. Bush himself criticized the remarks as uncivil, and yesterday Republican lawmakers went further. House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, Texas Republican, called the remarks “as disgusting as they are false.”

Mr. Kennedy did not back down yesterday: “This administration is muddling through, day-by-day, while the lives of our soldiers are at risk and their families worry here at home.”

And his fellow Democratic senators defended him, with Mr. Daschle calling criticism of Mr. Kennedy “McCarthyesque.”

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