WASHINGTON – After months of marching in lockstep with President Bush on the war on terror, some Democrats in Washington are starting to veer off into their own direction and criticize the effort and the spending planned for it.
Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., said Wednesday the Pentagon was using the open-ended war in Afghanistan to boost its budget and actually wanted to prolong the war. And on Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle, D- S.D., joined the slowly growing chorus of criticism.
"I think there has been expansion without direction," Daschle said during a morning press conference. "I think we need to have a clearer understanding of what the direction will be."
With elections for control of Congress in November, Bush and the fight against terrorists remain so popular that Democrats have been cautious about disparaging either. But they have begun searching for ways to criticize aspects of Bush's anti-terrorism policies and his defense budget while still not appearing to waver in their support of the overall effort.
Critics of the Democrats said the tactic may backfire.
"This is a desperate move on their part, a gamble," said Col. Fred Peterson, a Washington, D.C-based military analyst. "It’s a move that indicates more their frustration for their lack of success (in the polls) than any differences in policy. What they’re trying to do is parley the safety and unity of this country with politics."
On Wednesday, Byrd, the chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, demanded details on how long U.S. troops are expected to be in Afghanistan, complaining that there was "no end in sight." He suggested that the Pentagon liked it that way.
"Instead of concentrating on our operations in Afghanistan, the Pentagon seems to be looking for opportunities to stay longer and extend our presence in the region," he said in response to news that the United States is sending 200 Americans to help train soldiers in the former Soviet state of Georgia to help them fight terrorists.
Several Democrats echoed his sentiments.
"They’re bootstrapping this operation into adopting the dramatically higher defense spending they’d been proposing before this ever happened," said Senate Budget Committee Chairman Kent Conrad, D-N.D. "That’s a budget tactic they’re using."
The Pentagon said the war on terrorism could cost the government almost $30 billion this year, and the president has called for a $48 billion increase to total defense spending next year.
Daschle also has called for more congressional oversight of defense spending. And while agreeing that the campaign has been successful so far, "the continued success, I think, is still somewhat in doubt."
"There may be support in general for the president's request for defense, but somebody's got to ask tough questions," Daschle said.
Republicans immediately criticized Daschle. "Some people may want to run for president some day," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said. Daschle has not ruled out that he might challenge Bush in 2004.
"How dare Senator Daschle criticize President Bush while we are fighting our war on terrorism, especially when we have troops in the field," said Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott, R-Miss., in a written statement. "He should not be trying to divide our country while we are united."
But Sue Walitsky, a spokeswoman for the Democratic National Committee, insisted that Democrats’ support for war has not waned. "I think Democrats across the board have shown they support the administration in the war on terrorism," she said.
Richard Semiatin, a professor of government for American University, said the comments about defense spending and questions about the war could reflect something Democrats are seeing in their own polls.
"They’re looking at the polling data, which must show something – perhaps that support for funding other budgetary programs is growing, and that maybe the large support for budgetary spending on the war is waning," he said. "I think they sense an opening right now."
Recent polls, however, show support for the war waning little. A Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll released Thursday said 82 percent of those surveyed continue to support military action against terrorism, and 83 percent of people surveyed in an ABC/Washington Post poll released Thursday said they approved of President Bush’s handling of his office.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.