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Lott Retreats From Criticism of Airstrikes

Lott Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott speaks in Mississippi Thursday. (AP)

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  • By Helen Dewar
    Washington Post Staff Writer
    Friday, December 18, 1998; Page A42

    Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) pulled back from his sharp criticism of President Clinton yesterday, saying he never meant to question Clinton's motives in bombing Iraq and urging a "united front" of support for U.S. forces.

    "Once the decision is made and the action is underway, you support it," Lott said in a television interview, striking a starkly different tone than he did a day earlier when he questioned the "timing and the policy" of the bombing operations.

    In an interview on CNN from Mississippi, Lott also rejected the idea of a plea bargain or censure that some senators favor in order to avert an impeachment trial in the Senate if the House votes to impeach President Clinton later this week.

    "We will go to a trial and there won't be any dealmaking as we begin our job in the Senate," he said. But Lott also noted that there are "a number of votes or procedures that may be demanded along the way and we'll have to work the will of the Senate," an apparent reference to motions that could be made to end the trial and find an alternative punishment.

    Lott had come under attack from Democrats and some behind-the-scenes grousing from Republicans Wednesday when he said he could not support Clinton's military action -- a move that defied a long-standing tradition that party leaders close ranks when American troops are engaged in hostilities.

    By contrast, other senior Senate Republicans, including the chairmen of the three major national security committees, supported the operation and few made even passing references to the impeachment proceedings. While many House Republicans accused the president of provoking war to save his presidency, outgoing House Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Speaker-designate Bob Livingston (R-La.) supported the airstrikes. Voting 417 to 5, the House yesterday adopted a resolution of support for U.S. troops.

    In the interview, Lott did not specifically address his earlier comment that he could not support Clinton's decision to bomb Iraq. But he smoothed some of the jagged edges of that statement by saying several times that all Americans support U.S. troop deployments once they are made.

    "Now that the decision's been made and they [the troops] are underway, we have to be supportive of their effort," Lott said. While troops are at risk, he added, "we want to make sure that we have a united front in this effort."

    Moreover, Lott said, when he mentioned "timing," he had meant timing of the military strike, not its nearness in time to the House impeachment vote -- an interpretation that few others made when he issued the statement Wednesday.

    What he said Wednesday was this: "While I have been assured by administration officials that there is no connection with the impeachment process in the House of Representatives, I cannot support this military action in the Persian Gulf at this time. Both the timing and the policy are subject to question."

    Yesterday, he said he meant that the timing was questionable in the sense that the strikes should have been launched earlier in the year. He said sustained bombing may be impossible now in light of the beginning of Muslim holy month of Ramadan this weekend.

    Pressed on the issue, he said, he was "satisfied this was a military decision in terms of the strike being done now on the recommendation" of Defense Secretary William S. Cohen and Joint Chiefs Chairman Henry H. Shelton. Lott noted that he had just talked over the phone with Clinton and been briefed on the operation's progress.

    Clinton dismissed suggestions that the bombing was politically motivated, saying no "serious person would believe that any president would do such a thing." Others were more biting. "Trent Lott does not do foreign policy," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

    Senate Minority Leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.) declined to criticize Lott but said: "I believe the vast majority of members of the Senate stand in support of the actions taken and already, 24 hours later, it appears it was exactly the right thing to do."

    "Senator Lott is one of 100 senators," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.). "He represents his point of view. I happen not to agree."

    But Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he thought Lott had raised a "very legitimate question" about the timing. "We know in order to successfully pursue this attack . . . you have to sustain it for two or three weeks. We also know this will be terminated in two or three days for Ramadan. Why would you start when you only have two or three days?" Gregg asked.

    © Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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