By Patrick OConnor - 09/06/06 12:00 AM EDT
House Majority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) pledged yesterday to prevent a vote of no confidence on embattled Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.
Democrats in the House and Senate have discussed the introduction of a resolution or amendment to unseat the unpopular defense secretary for what they see as his negligent handling of the war efforts in Iraq.
The Rumsfeld question puts congressional Republicans on the defensive at a time when they are trying to gain a political advantage on national security issues heading into the midterm election.
While GOP leaders try to focus the security debate on terrorism and illegal immigration, Democrats will continue to emphasize failings in Iraq over the next two months.
In defending Rumsfeld, Boehner threw his unequivocal support behind the defense secretary, who has come under increased scrutiny from members of both parties. Some Republican congressional candidates this year have called on Rumsfeld to resign (See related story).
“I personally like Don Rumsfeld,” Boehner said during a briefing with reporters, his first since returning from the August recess. “I think that he has been the perfect person to be our defense secretary over the last five years.”
“He has a strong enough will to reform the Pentagon,” Boehner said, while citing Rumsfeld’s years of experience in the Department of Defense. “[Rumsfeld] knows where the bodies are buried.”
Rumsfeld, who initiated a major overhaul of strategy, management and war fighting capabilities at the Pentagon, has drawn the ire of a number of retired generals for what they see as poor planning in Iraq.
Asked if he would block a no-confidence vote, Boehner did not directly answer the question. But when a reporter asked him if he would schedule a vote, the majority leader said, “Probably not.”
Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the ranking Democrats on the relevant defense and intelligence committees sent a letter to President Bush on Monday requesting new civilian leadership at the Pentagon without naming Rumsfeld specifically.
Citing increased casualties and fears that the U.S. military is stuck in “a low-grade civil war,” Democratic leaders also advocated the “phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq before the end of this year.”
Republicans have launched an election-year drive to tout their accomplishments on national security while slamming Democratic leaders for advocating withdrawal from Iraq.
“I think a timetable for withdrawal would be a huge mistake,” Boehner said yesterday.
With November approaching, the war effort gives leaders in both parties a clear opportunity to distance themselves from the other party, but rank-and-file members might be less eager to wage that debate along party lines.
Rep. Chris Shays (R-Conn.), who faces a tough reelection fight, recently joined a small handful of Republican lawmakers to call for a phased withdrawal from Iraq.
Democrats are hoping to tap that divide as a clear sign of splintered support for the war.
“Mr. Boehner is so out of touch with what Americans feel about the war in Iraq that it is clear we need a new direction and new leadership at the Pentagon,” Pelosi spokeswoman Jennifer Crider said.
There is no agreement on how Democrats proceed and the talks on their strategy appear to be at a preliminary stage. One possibility is for a member to request an amendment to the defense appropriations bill that would cancel funding for the office of the secretary.
Boehner’s support of the defense secretary comes as House leaders address another issue that could divide Republicans: earmark reform.
House Appropriations Committee Chairman Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) has scheduled a meeting later today with members of his panel to discuss proposed changes to the House rules that would require members to attach their names to all earmark requests in appropriations, tax and authorizing bills.
Lewis and members of his committee initially opposed the changes as they were included in a lobbying reform package that passed the House earlier this year. Lewis only agreed to support the broader bill after Boehner and House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) promised to apply that language to the tax and authorizing committees as well.
A Lewis spokesman said the chairman would still support any rule changes that apply to all the other committees.
Procedurally, the changes would be made to the current House rules and would become effective immediately, although there is some question about whether those changes would apply to appropriations bills that have already passed the House.
“We’re working to fulfill the promises that the leadership made to members that earmark reform would apply across the board to everyone,” Boehner spokesman Kevin Smith said yesterday.
On the immigration front, House Republicans appear content to pass piecemeal legislation — such as increased funding for surveillance, fencing and detention centers in the defense appropriations bill — instead of a comprehensive reform bill.