Iraq, Afghanistan in the Capitol Hill Spotlight

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The U.S. Senate this week approved $66 billion in new funds for continued military efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the House of Representatives on Friday approved a resolution that explicitly includes the conflict in Iraq as part of the larger effort to combat terrorism across the globe. Alex Chadwick discusses these and the other important political stories of the week with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

NPR's Senior Correspondent Juan Williams is with us again now for our regular Friday review of the news. Juan, how about this vote in the House of Representatives? And one yesterday in the Senate, $66 billion for military operations in Iraq. What's this going to achieve?

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Well, it simply keeps things going, Alex. But you know, the big argument is about the war itself. Is the war, one, justified? Two, is it time for a timetable for withdrawal of troops. Now, the Democrats feel that they've been walking into a trap themselves, that what the Republicans have done this week in terms of the vote for the supplemental, because it's not part of the budget, so nobody ever gets to understand that you're spending 115 billion, actually, this fiscal year for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan; and then, in addition, the whole argument about the war comes down to either you support the effort or not. And even the Kerry amendment in the Senate, which would have said we have to have a pullout by the end of this year, became an opportunity for the Republicans to say it was about cut and run and portray Kerry, in a way, as a weakling, someone who's not strong on defense, despite all his credentials to the contrary.

When it comes to the war issue, what they want to do is diminish the Democrats' ability to say the Republicans have made a mistake or that President Bush is a problem because of his position, the fact that he's stalwart about going forward with Iraq. And the way that they want to do that is point out that the Democrats don't have a consistent message.

CHADWICK: And they want to be able to say, look, President Bush knows what he wants to do in Iraq. He's steady. He's consistent. And the Democrats are all over the place. You know, Senator Clinton, Hillary Clinton, was speaking to a group of Democratic activists on this subject a couple of days ago. She said, first of all, she didn't agree with the President's what she called open-ended commitment, but then she went on to say this:

Senator HILLARY RODHAM CLINTON (Democrat, New York): Nor do I think it is smart strategy to set a date certain. I do not agree that that is in the best interest of our troops or our country.

CHADWICK: So there's Senator Clinton interrupted by some boos in her speech when she said we shouldn't set a date for withdrawal.

WILLIAMS: Boos and hisses. And then, actually, when she was leaving, people erupted into Bring the troops home, bring the troops home. And then John Kerry gets on stage and says, you know, you can't argue about when to bring them home or when not to bring them home. What you have to acknowledge is, as he put it, that the war itself was a mistake. And he got tremendous cheers. So that reveals the division within the party. And of course what we're seeing here is a skirmish that's a preliminary to the campaign for the Democratic nomination.

CHADWICK: One more skirmish. Among the Democrats, this is. They voted in the House to remove Louisiana Congressman William Jefferson from his seat on the House Ways and Means Committee. Mr. Jefferson is the person who was caught with $90,000 wrapped up in aluminum foil in his freezer, and there are a lot of questions about how he got that money. Is this the end for him now? He's removed from this powerful position?

WILLIAMS: No, it's not the end because he hasn't been indicted. And there was a huge row - again, among Democrats. You know, for the longest time, Alex, since we've been talking about politics on Fridays, we say, well, the numbers don't look good for the Republicans, but there's always the chance that the Democrats could implode.

Well, the Democrats, for their part, say, wait a second, this is going to undermine our claim that we are not part of this culture of corruption. But then, racial politics gets involved, the Congressional Black Caucus, Congressional Hispanic Caucus saying, is this a double standard? We've never ousted someone who wasn't indicted from a seat. We have other members of Congress, other Democrats who are having ethical questions raised. Why aren't we ousting them? Why are pointing at Jefferson?

And the answer from Pelosi was, this is so over the top, so beyond any ethical realm, that we have to, as Democrats, set a standard. And lucky for her, the Congressional Black Caucus and Hispanic Caucus had pretty much backed off from the claim that, you know, the Democrats take minorities for granted and that Democrats aren't treating minorities fairly. For right now, they are papering over this divide over William Jefferson, but it's there.

CHADWICK: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

Juan, thank you.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Alex.

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