Advocating for an honorable end

FINE POINT: A LOOK AT THE WEEK IN WASHINGTON

Posted on October 28, 2007

With Congress' approval ratings so low that members make President Bush look good, it is easy to think that everything they do in "your nation's capital" is a product of greed, conflict or revenge. Oh, there's plenty of that. But every now and then there are also members of Congress who can't help themselves from making sense. One of them is the ever-civil senior senator from Tennessee, Lamar Alexander. His presidential ambitions now a memory, Alexander, a Republican, spends time on matters that get beyond the tiresome partisan fights of the day. Things that really matter, such as trying to make sure that the United States doesn't continue to fall behind China in math and science education. The latest example? He is a lead sponsor, along with Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), of a measure that would require the Bush administration to regularly report to Congress on the status of plans to redeploy troops from Iraq. It is not legislation that forces the hand of the Pentagon, nor does it diminish the president's powers as commander in chief. Yet the president is against it. It is at least one effort to get some actual accountability in a war that is replete with bad numbers in cost, casualties and troop levels, to name just three obvious areas. The co-sponsors are an interesting mix. They include Sens. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.), Jim Webb (D-Va.), George Voinovich (R-Ohio), Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.). So some of the war's harshest critics, like Webb, and some of the president's most loyal supporters, like Dole, find themselves agreeing on this. The bill would finally give Congress a sense of genuine oversight rather than have it play the role of rubber stamp preferred by Bush and the Pentagon. It would require the secretary of defense to report to Congress and also require the secretary and the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other high-ranking officers to brief Congress. That they would need legislation to achieve this is telling. Reached en route to his home in Maryville, Tenn., Alexander said he has been pushing this stone uphill since January in one form or another. He also has urged the president to embrace the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, another suggestion that Bush has disregarded. Alexander and Salazar introduced the bill requiring additional accountability in March, and they are awaiting action by the Senate Armed Services Committee. "Since January, I have been urging the president to embrace the Iraq Study Group's recommendations as a way to shift gears in Iraq and develop a bipartisan solution for an honorable finish there," Alexander said. Then he laughed the laugh of the happy warrior. "And we've been seeking support for that [and we have] done what almost no one else has been able to do -- unify Harry Reid [D-Nev.] and President Bush on Iraq. But it was in opposition to our bill. "The president wanted to conduct the war his way; Reid wanted to keep it as a political issue. So they were both opposed." For its part, the House has passed a near identical measure, but the Senate so far has balked. Alexander is hoping that the president will come to see his bill as a way for the administration to "shift gears and make sure we are on a path to an honorable conclusion to the war." Alexander used the word honorable nearly half a dozen times in 10 minutes, as though he's convinced that the White House just doesn't get the cover his solution would provide. "We've got to find a way to speak with one voice," he said. "It's inexcusable for us to lecture Baghdad that they are in a political stalemate." He said his proposal, along with a companion measure, represents "a significant body of opinion in the U.S. Senate that we are not going to have a precipitous withdrawal and we are not going to have a victory like we had in Germany and Japan in World War II. So we need to be clear that we are on a path to honorably finishing the job in Iraq." While that sentiment might seem hard to argue with, there remains plenty of opposition. And that is contributing to voter resentment. "I think the American people are thoroughly disgusted with the partisanship and are starved really for members of Congress to solve big problems," Alexander said. And he concedes that the president of his party has largely prosecuted the war with something verging on indifference to congressional opinion. "This bill helps with congressional oversight, but the major value of this bill is, if the president signs it, it's a clear shift of direction in Iraq, [from] saying 'I want to do it my way.' "This would say that we want to hear from the administration every 90 days. It doesn't infringe on the president's constitutional authority, but it does put him on record saying it is time to do the job. I don't know why he wouldn't agree with that."