House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) launched her most aggressive broadside against the Bush administration on the issue of Iraq on Tuesday, calling on President Bush to fire some of his top advisers to forge a new direction in foreign policy. While Pelosi did not name names, Democratic leadership aides said later she was referring to the possible firings of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.
“It falls to him to decide whose heads should roll,” Pelosi said of Bush.
The move by the leader signals a notable shift from the otherwise cautious approach to foreign policy she’s taken in her first nine months as the leader of House Democrats. Pelosi, a liberal Member from San Francisco, opposed the war in Iraq but has been careful in her criticism of the Bush administration so as not to give Republicans an opening to charge that she is politicizing the conflict.
Flanked by Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), ranking member on the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense, Pelosi took aim at the White House request for additional military spending and questioned why it has been so wrong on the war’s costs — both in lives and money. Congress is prepping for a major and perhaps rancorous debate over the pending White House request for $87 billion in additional spending to cover military and reconstruction costs in Iraq.
“Whatever their plan was, it hasn’t worked,” Pelosi charged. “There has to be an accountability for what hasn’t worked. There has to be a change in policymakers because this policy has failed.”
The latest move could prove tricky for Pelosi, especially given the fact that Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) has faced a torrent of criticism whenever he has criticized the White House on foreign policy.
Daschle came under heavy attack in March — and was labeled unpatriotic by Republicans — after saying he was “saddened that this president failed so miserably at diplomacy that we’re now forced to war.”
While not mentioning Pelosi by name, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) defended the Bush White House and its plan in Iraq on Tuesday, countering that with Democrats “nothing is ever good enough for them.”
Aside from GOP counterattacks, Pelosi could face trouble within her own Caucus as well, as she attempts to balance the split among her Democratic colleagues over the conflict itself, the Bush administration’s policies and spending on the war. That divide has been felt for months, beginning when Members voted on whether to initiate the conflict nearly a year ago.
That battle has continued as some centrists in the party have warned that Democrats could look weak on defense issues if they spend too much time attacking Bush over Iraq, and should instead stick to focusing on the troubled economy. But given the national wave of popularity for anti-war candidate Howard Dean, Democrats at the grassroots level have charged that party leaders in Washington have been too timid in not challenging Bush on foreign policy matters.
A senior Democratic aide said Pelosi is trying to reconcile the push from some of her Members who continue to oppose the conflict altogether and those who supported it.
“Her point is ‘Yeah, we shouldn’t have gone to war and we can’t find the weapons of mass destruction, but we are where we are,’” said the staffer. “We can’t get out of it now.”
Sources also said Pelosi wanted to call for the firings beside Murtha, a widely respected voice on defense matters and one of the first Democrats to suggest an administration housecleaning might be needed.
In his own remarks, Murtha blamed the administration for a number of failures from miscalculating the strength of the Iraqi opposition, underestimating the infrastructure needs of the country and overestimating how quickly Iraq could re-establish itself under a new government.
“Somebody has to go, somebody has to be held responsible,” Murtha said. “We can’t allow the bureaucrats to get off when these young fellas are paying the price.”
The offensive by Pelosi sets the stage for what promises to be a bruising battle over the supplemental — both on the floor and among House Democrats. Democrats are split on whether and to what degree Members should provide additional funding to the White House for the effort.
Several Democratic Caucus sources also indicated there is a difference of opinion over whether Pelosi and other senior Democrats should be calling for resignations at this time. Some aides speculated that other Democrats will also beat the drums for an administration shakeup, while other Members will keep quiet believing Bush will ultimately be held accountable in the 2004 election.
House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said he agreed with Pelosi that the Bush administration has mismanaged the post-war period, but stopped short of calling for Bush to sack his advisers.
Hoyer, who has supported the Iraqi conflict, said it is up to the White House to determine whether the president’s advisers failed him, and if so if they should go as a result. Otherwise, he said, Bush himself should be held accountable.
“Frankly, some of the president’s advisers were very, very wrong and badly misjudged the situation on the ground,” Hoyer said.