Republican senators gathering last Wednesday for their session-opening "retreat" should have been happy, blessed as they are with a regained majority and a popular president. They were not. Instead, they complained bitterly of arrogance by the Bush administration, especially the Pentagon, in its treatment of Congress along the road to war.
Two years of growing discontent boiled over during the closed-door meeting at the Library of Congress. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was there to hear grievances from President Bush's Senate base -- complaints that it is ignored and insulted by the administration, particularly Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in the preparations for war against Iraq. Furthermore, the recital of complaints began with Sen. John Warner, a pillar of the Senate GOP establishment.
This is a disconnected time in Washington. Republican senators appreciate that they have returned to majority status thanks to George W. Bush's bold midterm election strategy and his popularity in leading the war against terrorism. Yet their unease about a divided administration on the brink of attacking Iraq is deepened because they are neither consulted nor informed about war plans.
No senator more solidly supports Bush's national security policy than Warner, the 75-year-old chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who was reelected last year to a fifth term from Virginia without Democratic opposition. A veteran of the Navy (World War II) and Marine Corps (Korean War) and a former secretary of the Navy, he has devoted long public service to America's national defense.
Consequently, Warner had his colleagues' attention when he addressed Card in stentorian tones. "I will not tolerate," he boomed, "a continuation of what's been going on the last two years." He cited cavalier treatment that denies information even to the venerable top Senate Republican on Armed Services. To specify whom he was talking about, Warner said he had breakfast scheduled the next morning with Rumsfeld and would tell the secretary of defense the same thing.
Next up was Sen. Pat Roberts, a former Marine officer who has spent 40 years on Capitol Hill as a staffer, House member and (since 1996) a senator. Roberts, a plainspoken Midwesterner from Dodge City, Kan., is the new Intelligence Committee chairman. He told Card he agreed with everything Warner had just said. Roberts has long been frustrated by the lack of information on national security issues but has not publicly complained.
Sen. Christopher Bond of Missouri, another Bush backer who keeps criticism to himself, got up next to tell Card that the administration had better put out more concrete information justifying military action against Iraq as part of the war against terrorism. "What is the connection between Iraq and al Qaeda?" Bond asked. "Don't worry," replied Card, indicating the information would be coming along.
Two days before the GOP retreat, another leading Republican senator, Ted Stevens of Alaska -- incoming chairman of the Appropriations Committee and the new Senate president pro tem -- sent a letter of protest to the Pentagon. The notoriously short-fused Stevens was furious that Rumsfeld had eliminated funding for two of the eight high-tech Army brigades mandated by Congress. The brigades are built around the new eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicles.
Stevens, with Sen. Daniel Inouye of Hawaii (the top Democrat on the Appropriations defense subcommittee), wrote that the elimination of two Stryker brigades "is yet another example of the disregard of the Congress, and existing law, by the senior leadership of the Defense Department." Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz responded Friday with a conciliatory letter that made no concessions.
Wolfowitz's chief is usually less conciliatory. An old Senate Republican hand, asking for anonymity, explained to me why the senators are upset: "Rumsfeld's behavior toward senators is dismissive, barely civil, bordering on rude. He has no interest in us other than to get the money; no interest in our opinions." Rumsfeld spent more than six years in the House, but that was 44 years ago.
At the Library of Congress, Card responded to complaints by Warner and Roberts with "Thank you. I'll pass that along." According to administration sources, Bush is aware of the problem but has not yet addressed it. That constitutes one uncompleted war preparation.
(c)2003 Creators Syndicate Inc.