WASHINGTON -- Republican senators gathering last Wednesday for their session-opening "retreat" should have been happy, blessed with a regained majority and a popular president. They were not. Instead, they complained bitterly of arrogance by the Bush administration, especially the Pentagon, in treatment of Congress along the road to war.
Two years of growing discontent boiled over during the closed-door meeting at the Library of Congress. White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card was there to hear grievances from President Bush's Senate base that it is ignored and insulted by the administration, particularly Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, in preparing war against Iraq. Furthermore, recital of complaints began with Sen. John Warner, a pillar of the Senate GOP establishment.
This is a disconnected time in Washington. Republican senators appreciate that they have returned to majority status thanks to George W. Bush's bold midterm election strategy and his popularity leading the war against terrorism. Yet their unease about a divided administration on the brink of attacking Iraq is deepened because they are neither consulted nor informed about war plans.
No senator more solidly supports Bush's national security policy than John W. Warner, the 75-year-old chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, who was re-elected last year to a fifth Senate term from Virginia without Democratic opposition. A veteran of the Navy (World War II) and Marine Corps (Korean War), and a former secretary of the navy, he has devoted long public service to American's national defense.
Consequently, Warner had his colleagues' attention when he addressed Card in stentorian tones. "I will not tolerate," he boomed, "a continuation of what's been going on the last two years." He cited cavalier treatment that denies information even to the venerable top Senate Republican on Armed Services. To specify who he is talking about, Warner said he had breakfast scheduled the next morning with Rumsfeld and would tell the secretary of defense the very same thing.
Next up was Sen. Pat Roberts, a former Marine officer who has spent the last 40 years on Capitol Hill as a staffer, House member and (since 1996) a senator. Roberts, a plainspoken Midwesterner from Dodge City, Kan., is the new Senate Intelligence Committee chairman. He told Card to mark him down agreeing with everything Warner just said. Roberts long has been frustrated by lack of information on national security issues but has not publicly complained.
Sen. Kit Bond of Missouri, another Bush backer who keeps criticism to himself, next got up to tell Card that the administration had better put out more concrete information justifying military action against Iraq as part of the war against terrorism. "What is the connection between Iraq and Al Qaeda?" Bond asked. "Don't worry," replied Card, indicating the information would come along.
Two days before the GOP retreat, another leading Republican senator, Ted Stevens of Alaska -- incoming chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the new Senate president pro tem -- sent a letter of protest to the Pentagon. The notoriously short-fused Stevens was furious that Rumsfeld had eliminated funding for two of the eight high-tech Army brigades mandated by Congress. The brigades are built around the new eight-wheeled Stryker combat vehicles.
Stevens, with Sen. Dan Inouye of Hawaii (top Democrat on the defense appropriations subcommittee), wrote that elimination of two Stryker brigades "is yet another example of the disregard of the Congress, and existing law, by the senior leadership of the Defense Department." Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz responded Friday with a conciliatory letter that made no concessions.
Wolfowitz's chief is usually less conciliatory. An old Senate Republican hand, asking anonymity, explained to me why the senators are upset: "Rumsfeld's behavior toward senators is dismissive, barely civil, bordering on rude. He has no interest in us other than to get the money; no interest in our opinions." Rumsfeld spent more than six years in the House, but that was 44 years ago.
At the Library of Congress, Andy Card responded to complaints by Warner and Roberts with a "Thank you. I'll pass that along." According to administration sources, President Bush is aware of the problem but has not yet addressed it. That constitutes one uncompleted war preparation.