The Senate press gaggle resembled a firing squad when the small group of southern Republicans assembled. The alliance of southern senators — a bit non-plussed by the pressies’ vehemence — were trying to explain their challenge to those who oppose President Bush’s surge of 21,500 troops to Iraq. Their point, almost lost in the hostile questions, was to demand that the critics present an alternative plan instead of critical political statements in the form of non-binding resolutions.
Flanked by Sen. John Cornyn (Tex.) and Sen. David Vitter (La.) Sen. Jim DeMint (S.C.) said, "To be a leader you have to put a plan on the table. I can respect senators who say this is a hopeless situation, we have to get our troops out safely and as quickly as possible. That is at least a position and an act that you can say a leader would do."
These remarks were made in a short session with reporters after each senator delivered separate, successive speeches on the Senate floor.
The lawmakers said those who did not want more troops in Iraq should try to cut off funding for the deployment or explore alternative forms of action, rather than pursuing non-binding resolutions that do nothing more than make a political statement.
Reporters challenged the trio on what Congress should be doing instead of debating non-binding resolutions. "Is there no guidance Congress should provide?" one sniffed.
Cornyn said they should recall efforts on behalf of the Iraq Study Group and those led in the Pentagon by General Peter Pace to seek advice from Congress on how to proceed after the midterm elections.
"There was opportunity for a lot of people to give their very best input" to the White House, Cornyn said.
"Critics of the status quo and current plan stopped short of offering alternatives," he said. "All they’ve done is criticize. That is not a constructive role to play."
Vitter read directly from the Iraq Study Group report to illustrate Cornyn’s point about collaboration between the White House and Congress.
"On page 73 it says this," Vitter said, opening up the report. "We could, however, support a short-term redeployment or surge of American combat forces to stabilize Baghdad, or to speed up training and equipping the mission, if the U.S. commander in Iraq determines that such steps would be effective.”
On January 23, in his confirmation hearing before the Senate Armed Services Committee (to become U.S. Commander in Iraq) Lt. Gen. David Petraeus said, “The additional forces that have been directed to move to Iraq will be essential.”
At one point a reporter engaged DeMint and Vitter on the specifics of a non-binding resolution drafted by Sen. John Warner (R.-Va.) that "disagrees with the ‘plan’ to augment our forces by 21,500."
The language of the Warner resolution is weaker than a rival resolution presented by Senators Carl Levin (D.-Mich.), Joe Biden (D.-M.D.) and Chuck Hagel (R.-Neb.) that described the surge as an "escalation."
Unlike the Levin, Biden and Hagel’s plan, Warner’s resolution also recommends, but does not legislate, that the White House give Congress updates every 30 days of the Iraqi government’s progress in defeating insurgents, expenditures on Iraqi army equipment and the effectiveness of the police force in Baghdad.
"Are you saying, did you read the Warner resolution, have you read it?" one journalist asked DeMint
"I’ve read the summary, but not all of it," said DeMint.
"So you are literally up here commenting on Warner resolution and you haven’t read it?" the reporter said.
Turning to Vitter, the reporter said, "The administration and many people think the Warner resolution goes too far with the plan. It actually talks about Iraqi troops in Baghdad and redeploying the American troops outside Baghdad. It talks about Anbar and rules of engagement. It’s very hard to think it’s not a plan."
Vitter interrupted, "There are two separate issues I’ve brought up. One is folks opposing a plan and not having a plan. I think you are right that applies less with Warner because of those details—"
The reporter cut him off: "So you are now saying Warner might have some plan?"
Vitter explained, "Obviously, the Warner resolution doesn’t do anything to implement that plan. Basically, it says ‘General Petraeus you are in charge’ because we confirmed him and ‘the troops are heading over’ because it does nothing to stop that and ‘by the way this is a mission that is doomed to fail.’"
Then a journalist suggested to Vitter that "some people might actually be uncomfortable because Warner is so aggressive. Warner is not talking about stopping anything—"
Vitter said, "In terms of the non-binding nature of it, he’s not aggressive at all. It’s completely non-binding."
“Non-binding resolutions are just critical expressions that do nothing,” DeMint added.
A few Democrats have heeded Cornyn, DeMint and Vitter’s call. Among those who have recently introduced legislation to stop the troop surge are Democrat Senators Barack Obama (Ill.), Chris Dodd (Conn.) and Russ Feingold (Wisc.).
Obama is pushing a bill to order forces out of Iraq by 2008 without any funding cuts, Dodd is proposing to require President Bush to get approval from Congress if troop levels reach a certain number (around 130,000) and Feingold would like to simply cut funding for Iraq deployments six months after his bill is passed.
In a brief interview with reporters yesterday Feingold said, "It is our responsibility to end a foolish war. The Democrats were in the majority when we approved this Iraq war. And the Democrats are in the majority again. We cannot simply blame the President. He made a terrible mistake, but we share in the blame to not act aggressively to end this war."
Republican Sen. Johnny Isakson (Ga.) has also introduced legislation to protect money to fund the war.