WASHINGTON – For four long days, L. Paul Bremer (search) made trip after trip up to Capitol Hill, trying to win support for the Bush administration's $87 billion spending request for Iraq and Afghanistan.
In an extraordinary nine congressional appearances, the U.S. administrator for Iraq fielded hundreds of questions, some angry, many asking why taxpayers should pay billions of dollars for public works projects in Iraq when needs at home weren't being met.
He arrived just as long-silent Democrats were primed to attack, bolstered by polls showing public uncertainty about President Bush's handling of the war's aftermath. Democrats said the spending request showed how the postwar planning was botched. They zeroed in on the $20.3 billion requested for Iraqi reconstruction -- the very part Bremer had to defend.
And he arrived in the aftermath of Hurricane Isabel, which left his Washington home without electricity for days.
"I realize this has been an interesting time coming back home," Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind. (search), told him at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing Wednesday. "You're probably anxious to get back to Iraq."
"Well, I had better electricity supply in Iraq, senator," Bremer said.
Bremer and Gen. John Abizaid (search), the head of U.S. Central Command who frequently appeared with Bremer, were the ideal choices to sell Bush's Iraq proposal. Both are widely respected in Congress. Lawmakers of both parties repeatedly praised them for their commitment and courage.
Bremer had another advantage: He was appointed civil administrator for Iraq in May, after Bush declared that major combat had ended. Before that, he had been a businessman.
When Democrats demanded to know why the administration hadn't anticipated the costs of rebuilding Iraq or whether its prewar intelligence on Iraqi weapons was misleading, Bremer could deflect: He wasn't involved in prewar planning.
What Bremer could talk about was the package itself, and on that, his message never changed: The $20.3 billion in reconstruction money was needed as urgently as the more popular $66 billion in military spending. The money shouldn't be in the form of loans because Iraqis already have too much debt. And authority in Iraq should not be turned over to the U.S.-appointed interim Governing Council.
Democrats pressed fruitlessly for an estimate of what Iraq might cost in future years beyond the $87 billion. They also accused the administration of trying to ram the proposal through before Congress had time to consider it carefully.
Bremer received a harsh reception at a closed-door meeting Tuesday with Senate Democrats. Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, described it as "a maelstrom."
While Republicans were supportive, they too had concerns. Some wanted to know why other countries weren't contributing more money and troops and how Bremer would ensure that a new Iraqi government would respect religious freedom and other civil liberties.
For the most part, Bremer remained poised. A former diplomat, Bremer, 61, has a distinguished, ambassadorial presence with his gray-flecked black hair and dark pinstriped suit with a handkerchief protruding from the breast pocket.
But after hours of questioning, a defiant, sometimes sarcastic, streak would emerge.
When Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, top Democrat on the House Appropriations Committee, kept asking Wednesday for long-term costs estimates, Bremer said, "Well, congressman, I haven't gotten an awful lot smarter in answering this question in the time you first asked it until now."
That led Obey to accuse Bremer of "stiffing us." Bremer responded, "Well, congressman, I resent that."
When Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, asked Bremer on Thursday to provide the panel with some planning documents, Bremer said he might provide just the relevant information instead of the documents.
"We are being asked to spend $20 billion of American taxpayers' money," Levin shot back. "You can't just say you're going to keep us informed. ... I don't think anyone on this committee, Democrat or Republican, is going to accept that from any member of the executive branch."