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GOP Rallies to Rice’s Defense

Senate Republicans plan to launch a major defense of the Bush administration’s efforts to combat terrorism on the chamber floor just as National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice begins her testimony this morning before the commission investigating the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

Senate Republicans will mix a series of strongly worded morning floor speeches with a press conference outside the Hart hearing room hosting the commission immediately after Rice’s testimony concludes, which is expected to happen shortly before noon.

Republicans said that they want to be every bit as aggressive in rallying to the administration’s defense as Democrats were in going after President Bush and Rice following the testimony two weeks ago of Richard Clarke, the former head of counterterrorism efforts for the National Security Council who accused the White House of ignoring terrorist threats.

“It’s a matter of record: The Democrats were spinning as soon as Clarke was done testifying,” said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who will play a lead defense role for Rice. “It’s critical that the American people know that there’s an answer to Clarke.”

Republicans won’t be waiting for Rice’s testimony to conclude, launching a series of floor speeches during the chamber’s “morning business” period beginning around 10 a.m. as most observers will still be fixated on the NSA’s nationally televised testimony, which is slated to begin at 9 a.m. and conclude at 11:30 a.m. in Hart 216.

One of the lead floor speakers will be Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who lashed out earlier this week at Sen. Edward Kennedy after the Massachusetts Democrat compared Bush to Richard Nixon and the current battles in Iraq to the Vietnam War. McConnell will lead the press conference after Rice’s testimony, along with Smith and Sens. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) and Susan Collins (R-Maine).

The GOP Senators are expected to focus on pushing back against suggestions that the Bush administration is to blame for the attacks that left nearly 3,000 Americans dead, according to lawmakers and aides. Republicans want to shift the focus to the question of how to prevent future terrorist attacks and the idea that if there is blame to be spread around it should be pinned on the Clinton White House as well as the Bush administration.

Democrats are planning their own set of speeches to rebut Rice’s testimony. Those will be led by Sen. Bob Graham (D-Fla.), who co-chaired the 2002 probe by the House and Senate Intelligence committees into Sept. 11, and Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

In their defense of Rice, Republicans say they will not hold back in seeking to further undermine Clarke’s credibility, which has come under a withering assault from White House officials and Congressional GOP leaders since his testimony and numerous media appearances promoting his new book — a best-seller that the majority is using to question Clarke’s motives.

Smith said that the only answer he thought meant anything during Clarke’s testimony was when the former counterterrorism adviser to four administrations said there was no guarantee that any step could have been taken to prevent the Sept. 11 attacks.

“Everything else was about selling books,” Smith charged.

House Republican Conference Chairwoman Deborah Pryce (Ohio), who is organizing a series of television and radio appearances by Members to defend Rice, called Clarke a “yahoo who is trying to sell a book.”

Anticipating that the commission proceedings would be the focus of even local news, the House Republican Conference included talking points about Clarke in the recess packet it distributed to lawmakers before the House broke last week for its two-week spring break.

“I think it’s important that the world sees the contrast between Dr. Rice and Dick Clarke,” Pryce said.

Her staff has already booked about a dozen GOP lawmakers to appear on national news programs to discuss Rice and Clarke as well as the situation in Iraq. The Conference will work to “bracket” Rice’s testimony by booking more Members immediately after she makes her appearance.

The GOP leadership is also giving lawmakers tips on how to be supportive of Rice in talking to their local media outlets.

“The message from our Members going into this week is that if this president and this administration had known there was an imminent threat [of the Sept. 11 attacks] we would have done anything in our power to stop it,” said Conference spokesman Greg Crist.

Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who has served as a top defender of the White House in media appearances, said the RNC would be taking an intentionally lower profile on Rice’s testimony in an attempt to avoid what might be considered a politicization of the issue.

“Dr. Rice’s testimony will speak for itself,” Gillespie said Wednesday as he emerged from the Senate GOP’s weekly luncheon.

Clarke won’t be the only person under fire from Republicans today and in the days ahead. Republicans said they expect to question the language used by Democrats such as Kennedy.

Stipulating that they won’t be questioning the patriotism of Kennedy and others, Smith said, “We’re answering them. We are questioning their wisdom.”

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