Congress agrees on bin Laden action but not much else


Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), left, and Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) speak to reporters Monday on the assassination of Osama bin Laden. (Melina Mara/THE WASHINGTON POST)
May 2, 2011

On Monday, for once, members of Congress spent the day vigorously agreeing with one another. In a torrent of official statements, Republicans and Democrats concurred that the death of Osama bin Laden was good news.

They still can’t agree on much else. The political and policy disputes that are expected to define this term — on federal spending, taxes and the debt — remain just as divisive.

Even the debate about the war in Afghanistan does not appear to have shifted significantly. Both sides see bin Laden’s death as proof that they were right.

“The Afghans now are in an even better position to take responsibility” for their own security, said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who argues that bin Laden’s demise means the United States can step up its exit from Afghanistan. President Obama has promised to begin withdrawing some of the 100,000 U.S. troops in Afghanistan in July.

Levin said bin Laden’s death shows these reductions should be “robust.”

But Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), a critic of the withdrawal plans, said it is important for the United States not to abandon Afghanistan.

“The killing of bin Laden gives us increased momentum in the war in Afghanistan,” Lieberman said at a news conference at the Capitol. “If I were [Taliban leader] Mullah Omar, I’d be frightened right now.”

On Monday, there were few of the gestures of bipartisan unity that followed the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Then, members of Congress stopped campaign fundraising, and dozens stood together and sang “God Bless America” on the Capitol steps.

On Monday, the two parties said roughly the same things — they just didn’t say them together.

“To those that seek to destroy freedom by preying on innocent human life, we will not rest until we bring you to justice,” House Speaker John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a news conference with other top Republicans.

In his own press event, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that a “man who epitomized evil has been brought to justice.”

Leaders from both parties praised the work done by President Obama and former president George W. Bush. Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have come up with a bipartisan resolution praising Sunday’s attack, and passage is likely. And Lieberman and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), leaders of the homeland security committee, held a joint news conference.

But otherwise, Republican and Democratic leaders spoke separately — aides from both parties said they hadn’t even considered holding a joint event.

For the most part Congress continued Monday with its regular business, both official and unofficial. Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who is quitting because of an affair with a former aide, gave his farewell address. No other senators showed up to hear it.

The House approved naming a post office after an Oklahoma soldier killed in Iraq, and a Texas courthouse after presidents George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush.

Congress’s unofficial business — interparty quarreling — also continued. The office of House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) sent out a release attacking Republicans for plans to alter Medicare while preserving tax breaks for large oil companies.

At a White House dinner Monday night for congressional leaders and Cabinet secretaries, President Obama called for building upon the unity created by bin Laden’s capture to resolve other issues that divide the two parties.

“Last night . . . we experienced the same sense of unity that prevailed on 9/11,” Obama said. “We were reminded again that there is a pride in what this nation stands for, and what we can achieve, that runs far deeper than party, far deeper than politics.”

He added, “It is my fervent hope that we can harness some of that unity and some of that pride to confront the many challenges that we still face.”

Leaders of both parties said, though, that the news of bin Laden’s death would not significantly alter the upcoming agenda, which is likely to focus on spending and debt.

First, the bipartisan group of senators called the “Gang of Six” will continue talks Tuesday in their effort to propose a long-term plan for reducing federal deficits. Then, perhaps as early as next week, Congress will begin a contentious debate over raising the federal debt limit.

“It’ll be a good feeling for a few days, maybe weeks, but as soon as we start debating the debt ceiling” that will dissipate, said Rep. Jer­rold Nadler (D-N.Y.). “The parties are so fundamentally separate on this.”

Administration officials have warned that failing to raise the federal borrowing limit could cause the United States to default on its loans, upending the country’s and the world’s economies. But many Republicans — urged on by a group of conservative freshmen — have said they won’t vote to raise it without a guarantee of further spending cuts.

“The celebrations, where we pause for a moment to rightfully acknowledge [bin Laden’s death] . . . those are really disconnected completely from the discussion that is going to take place,” said Rep. Scott Rigell (R-Va.), one of 87 GOP freshmen.

As that debate loomed, Levin recounted how he took time to soak up the feeling of a country united, however briefly. He said he arrived in Washington on a flight from Detroit after midnight Monday morning, then phoned his wife, who was picking him up.

“I called up Barb, and said . . . ‘It may be 2 in the morning before I get home, but let’s go down,’ ” said Levin, 76, describing how they mingled with the crowd gathered outside the White House. “To try even to be a little more anonymous, I took my glasses off. It didn’t quite work.”

Staff writers Paul Kane and Perry Bacon Jr. contributed to this report.

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