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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could soon be sitting across a table from her counterparts in Iran and Syria. That was one of the recommendations that the Iraq Study Group, and later we'll hear from former co-chair Lee Hamilton. First, NPR's Guy Raz reports on what appears to be an about-face by the administration, beginning with a visit to Capitol Hill by Rice.
Ms. CONDOLEEZZA RICE (U.S. Secretary of State): These resources will enable the State Department to support the Iraqi government.
GUY RAZ: For about the first five minutes of her opening statement to the Senate Appropriations Committee, Secretary Rice rattled off a list of reasons for why she thought that Congress ought to send another $100 billion to fund the battles in Iraq and Afghanistan. And then, just as it seemed as if this hearing might be another dull and predictable one, she added…
Ms. RICE: I would like to take one moment to talk about our diplomatic offenses.
RAZ: The announcement she wanted to make was that in two weeks the United States will join Iran at a roundtable meeting in Iraq to talk about regional stability.
Ms. RICE: I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings. We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region.
RAZ: Now, this is the same Iran the administration once dubbed part of an axis of evil. And less than two weeks ago, the president had this to say about any possible dialogue with Iran.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: We've made it very clear to the Iranians that, if they would like to have a dialogue with the United States, there needs to be a verifiable suspension of their program.
RAZ: The president was referring to Iran's nuclear program. Now over the past few months, the Bush administration's been ratcheting up the rhetoric over Iran and all that tough talk has jolted many members of Congress. There's even talk on Capitol Hill of introducing legislation that prohibits any attack on Iran without congressional approval.
And at the hearing yesterday, the chairman of the Appropriations Committee, West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd, raised that issue with General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
Senator ROBERT BYRD (Democrat, West Virginia): There have been a number of reports that the U.S. is preparing to launch airstrikes against Iran. Is that true?
General PETER PACE (Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff): Mr. Chairman, it is not true.
Sen. BYRD: Categorically.
Gen. PACE: Categorically, sir.
RAZ: General Pace and Secretaries Rice and Gates were actually on Capitol Hill to ask for more money, about $100 billion more money to fund the Iraq and Afghan campaigns through the end of 2007. It's called a supplemental and it's money on top of the $70 billion Congress already allocated to those wars late last year. Which might explain why Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy sounded somewhat annoyed when he asked Secretary Gates…
Senator PATRICK LEAHY (Democrat, Vermont): How long? How long will it take? How much money? How many more of these open-end supplementals? And I look at this one where half of it doesn't say what it's going for. How long are we going to have to do that?
Mr. ROBERT GATES (U.S. Secretary of Defense): Senator, as you know, the honest answer to your question is I don't know.
RAZ: These days, about four percent of America's GDP goes towards defense spending, close to half a trillion dollars a year. And number crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office are predicting that that number will rise by as much as one percent in the coming year.
Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.
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