Political Fireworks Erupt in Washington over Iraq

NPR senior political editor Ron Elving speaks with Liane Hansen about this week's political fireworks on Capitol Hill. Pro-military "hawk" Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) stunned Washington on Thursday when he introduced a resolution to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq "as soon as practicable." That led to a House session on Friday that led to a free-for-all, complete with name calling. President Bush's handling of the lead-up to the war in Iraq is now overshadowing all other issues and might have a substantial impact on next year's mid-term elections.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

Friday evening's session in the House of Representatives was one of the most raucous in recent memory. The members were debating whether to withdraw American troops from Iraq immediately. This followed Representative John Murtha's impassioned plea on Thursday to start the process of bringing troops home, a plea which included a scathing denouncement of the Bush administration. The rancor on Capitol Hill has been evident all week with insults and verbal punches flying left and right. Joining us to make sense of it all is NPR senior Washington editor Ron Elving.

Ron, when was the last time you observed such a contentious session in the House?

RON ELVING reporting:

Liane, you talk about recent memory. It's been part of my job for 21 years now to watch the House, and I've never seen anything like Friday night's meltdown. And it was not just for show, either. Some of the members were close to coming unglued. Some of them were really losing it. And the key to this, of course, all of it, is the character of John Murtha. He's a symbolic figure. He's the furthest thing from a peacenik. He's someone who was raised in the coal country of western Pennsylvania. He joined the Marine Corps in Korean War, re-upped for the Vietnam War, two purple hearts, combat colonel in Vietnam. And since he's been in the House 33 years, he's become the senior Democrat on Defense appropriations and he is the living, breathing symbol of a long tradition of support for the military.

So when he took this position that he took last week, the Republicans in the House became almost desperate for some kind of show of solidarity behind the commitment in Iraq. So in their anger, they turned Murtha's plan, his rather extensive resolution, into a one-sentence statement of the withdrawal of all commitment to Iraq. They debated that on Friday night, but, of course, everybody denounced it. Even Murtha voted against it. So only, I believe, three people in the end voted for it. And in the meantime, of course, they derailed their own tax cut package that they planned to do that day, that night, put that off until December. And it's important to remember that they had all been up all night. They had been up the night before, I should say, passing a package of spending cuts, cutting programs such as student loans and Medicaid and food stamps, and that was a highly contentious issue that took much arm-twisting and went till 2, 3 in the morning. So they were fried.

HANSEN: Where's the Republican leadership in all of this? Have they lost control of its members?

ELVING: They haven't lost control. But they have less control. They probably have less control than at any time since the Republicans took control of the House in 1994. On the House side, a big part of the congressional leadership problem has been the loss of Tom DeLay. Now he's not gone, but he had to step aside as the House majority leader when he was indicted in Texas on charges of violating state campaign finance laws. And in his absence, although he's in and out, but when he is not there to actually be leading things day to day, well, the House Republican leadership is simply not the same.

And we saw that on Thursday afternoon when they were not able to pass the biggest spending bill of the year, which governs labor, health, education, most of the social programs of the federal government in one bill. And 22 Republicans deserted on that bill and it went down. It failed. That never would have happened if Tom DeLay were fully engaged, but the acting majority leader, Roy Blunt of Missouri, who did a very impressive job getting the votes for the spending cuts, was just not able to see this coming, got blindsided by it, and that simply wouldn't have happened if DeLay were fully in the saddle.

HANSEN: So what happens if Tom DeLay doesn't come back to the leadership any time soon?

ELVING: Well, he's trying to get his charges dismissed next week, and, failing that, to have an early trial next month, but if neither of those things should happen, it's quite possible the House is going to have a special election on the Republican side to choose some new leaders, not Speaker Dennis Hastert, but the people in the number two and three slots might very well be replaced. Right now the agenda in the House is mostly being run by a core group of conservatives called the Republican Study Committee, and they're led by a man named Mike Pence of Indiana, not a member of the formal leadership, but somebody who is insisting on the budget cuts, insisting on extending the tax cuts, and taking a hard line on Iraq. And when Tom DeLay was around, he could subordinate those people to the leadership agenda, but nobody else has had much luck doing that.

HANSEN: So what's been happening on the Senate side of Capitol Hill this week?

ELVING: Well, that's really where the revolt against the Iraq policy got going several weeks ago when the Democrats forced a closed-door session on this question of intelligence prior to the war. And that set off a series of events. White House reactions to that set off more reactions from the Senate, and last week the Senate added an amendment to their annual defense bill in which they called on the president to give them regular reports on progress towards making 2006 the transition year when the Iraqis take over their own defense. Now it was not a timetable. The Democrats tried that, and they failed. But it does send an unmistakable message that the Senate is getting impatient and, of course, we have elections for Congress next year.

HANSEN: And what's the future of John McCain's anti-torture provision?

ELVING: McCain's ban on detainee abuse has been added to both that defense bill I mentioned, and also the defense spending bill. Now it's not in the House version of either bill, and as a practical matter it'll probably stay in one, come out of the other. The president has veto promised on this bill. He said if that McCain language is in there, he will veto any bill that carries it. So we'll have to see if he's willing to cast his first veto of his presidency on a defense bill.

HANSEN: And, very briefly, Patrick Fitzgerald's CIA leak investigation remained in the news; surprise announcement by Bob Woodward, he had been told about Valerie Plame before Judith Miller, then impaneling a new grand jury. What's up?

ELVING: Well, this could help with a portion of the defense of former chief of staff to the vice president I. Lewis Libby. He has been indicted for outing that agent, Valerie Plame. This might undercut some of the prosecutor's theory in the case, but on the other hand, a brand-new grand jury looking into all of this is not good news for anyone concerned.

HANSEN: Ron Elving is NPR's senior Washington editor. Thanks a lot for coming in today, Ron.

ELVING: Thank you, Liane.

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Correction Nov. 22, 2005

In this interview, NPR's Ron Elving misstated the charge in the indictment of I. Lewis Libby, the former chief of staff to Vice President Dick Cheney. Libby was indicted for perjury and obstruction of justice in connection with the exposure of CIA agent Valerie Plame's identity. Libby was not indicted for revealing Plame's identity.

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