This Week in Washington: Iraq Debate, Intel Estimate
REBECCA ROBERTS, host:
Despite his ovation in Williamsburg, President Bush is facing plenty of opposition, not just from Democrats. Republicans in the Senate are debating various resolutions against the president's Iraq war plan. Meanwhile, the intelligence community issued its estimate of the situation in Iraq, and the verdict is bleak, and expensive. War spending is expected to eat up the lion's share of the president's budget, which will be released tomorrow.
Joining us to discuss the week ahead is Doyle McManus, Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times. Good morning, Doyle.
Mr. DOYLE MCMANUS (Los Angeles Times): Good morning, Rebecca.
ROBERTS: Let's start with these competing non-binding resolutions in the Senate. There has been some criticism this is just a chance for senators to, you know, make speeches without actually taking action. Naturally senators disagree. Let's listen to Republican Lindsay Graham of South Carolina.
Senator LINDSAY GRAHAM (Republican, South Carolina): These resolutions are probably the most consequential non-binding resolution votes in the history of the Senate. They're not going to stop anybody from going to the fight, but they're sure going to affect the fight.
ROBERTS: So looking ahead to the Senate debate this week, what do you think is going to happen there?
Mr. MCMANUS: Well, I think Senator Graham is right. These are non-binding resolutions. It's not so much that senators don't like to take action, although that's partly true. It's because the Senate is so divided. And we're going to have a rip-roaring debate about this issue that divides not only the country very deeply; it divides maybe even more acutely each of the two parties. Democrats are divided; Republicans are divided.
The first thing I think we're going to see is a threatened filibuster from the Republican side because Senator McConnell, the Republican leader, says he wants to get a full debate on their proposals. One is from Senator John McCain, who wants to support - in effect support the President's policy. Another is one from Senator McConnell, who wants to get senators on the record saying they won't press later for a cut-off of funds.
So there is going to be a lot of parliamentary maneuvering, a lot of major debate on Iraq. If I were to look ahead and guess where this all goes, it looks as if the sort of centrist proposal from Senator John Warner, the conservative Republican from Virginia, that says that the president - that the Senate disagrees with what the president is doing but won't cut off the funds, that resolution at this point has probably 52 to 55 votes, not yet the 60 needed to cut off a filibuster. Eventually my guess is that that is going to pass. It's a kind of a moderate rebuke to the president, but it won't - as Senator Graham says it won't - it won't stop operations.
And the real question is where do the presidential candidates come down on this, both the Republicans and the Democrats? There's pressure on Democrats like Barack Obama of Illinois to be tougher. There are a lot of Republicans - Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas - we don't know where he comes out. So there's going to be a lot of drama in this.
ROBERTS: And does the drama work for President Bush?
Mr. MCMANUS: It works for President Bush in this sense. He comes out of it still with the time to try his option in Iraq without a cut-off of funds at this point and - rebuked but not censured, so to speak.
ROBERTS: Portions of the National Intelligence Estimate were made public this week. It describes an increasingly chaotic, dangerous Iraq. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley says the administration's been planning its policy around this intelligence for months.
Mr. STEPHEN HADLEY (National Security Adviser): It is this intelligence and the picture it paints that caused the president to conclude and then develop a new strategy or a new approach.
ROBERTS: So if the White House says the judgment of the NIE is old news, why is it important?
Mr. MCMANUS: Well, it's important, Rebecca in a couple of ways. For one thing, that intelligence estimate makes it very clear that it's going to take 12 to 18 months to straighten out Iraq if things go well. Now, this administration has been allergic to talking about timeframes.
Mr. MCMANUS: To some degree, the military said, well, you know, it'll take six months for us to see where we're - you know, some people were willing to talk about six months. This makes it very clear, 12 to 18 months, and that's if it goes well. Second reason this was important - deep, deep skepticism in that intelligence estimate about the current Iraqi government and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. The intelligence estimate says there is no leader in Iraq who transcends sectarian differences. You can't really get to the right place until that leader is there. So this really tells us there is a long, long road ahead.
ROBERTS: And of course it comes with a big bill. President Bush said in his weekly radio address that defense costs will be his top budget priority, but he still wants to cut the deficit.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Cutting the deficit during a time of war requires us to restrain spending in other areas.
ROBERTS: So Doyle McManus, can the president have all the money he wants for a war, a permanent tax cut, and a balanced budget by 2012?
Mr. MCMANUS: Well, his budget is going to say he can and that's what budget documents are for. But here's the problem. Here's the fine print that's not in the budget. First, for all that to happen, the war has to go well, because this budget in later years has war-spending going down.
And the second one - and it's not in there - is there's a time-bomb in the tax code. It's called the Alternative Minimum Tax. It is going to hit, it's going to kill families in the middle class. It's already starting to gnaw at them. To fix that would cost a lot of money. The president's budget doesn't fix it. But if you look two years down the road, when he's no longer in the White House, somebody is going to want to fix it and that's going to cost.
ROBERTS: Doyle McManus is the Washington bureau chief for the Los Angeles Times.
Thanks for coming in, Doyle.
Mr. MCMANUS: Thank you.
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