WASHINGTON – Senate Republican critics of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld are deferring to President Bush's support for the Pentagon chief, mindful that his fate is out of their hands.
But in the aftermath of calls by several retired generals for Rumsfeld's ouster, those GOP lawmakers remain uncomfortable with him. Given the chance, they offer no words of support.
"He still is in the confidence of the president. The president reiterated that the other day, so I'll continue to try to work with him," Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., said Wednesday.
"There really is only one person he needs to please, and that's the president," added Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine. "The president's made clear that the secretary is his choice and that really ends it."
"Is he still here?" joked Sen. Trent Lott, R-Miss.
Yes. Should he not be?
"That's up to him and the president. I don't see that his performance has changed," said Lott, who has said he's "not a fan" of Rumsfeld.
Hardly glowing endorsements.
The criticism has raised questions about whether Rumsfeld is on his way out. In Baghdad on Wednesday, a reporter asked him whether this visit — his 12th — would be his last trip to Iraq as Pentagon chief.
"No," responded Rumsfeld.
Bush, for his part, has indicated he has no plans to dump Rumsfeld. He used a Rose Garden appearance to declare, "I'm the decider and I decide what's best. And what's best is for Don Rumsfeld to remain as the secretary of defense."
In recent weeks, at least six retired generals have publicly criticized Rumsfeld's handling of the Iraq war and his management style, an extraordinary rebuke of a civilian military leader from uniformed officers who recently served at his behest.
As the White House sought to quell the uproar, Democrats pounced.
Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Senate Democrat, called for a Senate vote of no confidence on Rumsfeld, and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., sought a Senate Armed Services Committee hearing in light of the criticism. She suggested hearing testimony from retired generals — those who have been critical as well as those with different opinions — and administration officials.
But neither of those efforts appear to be going anywhere anytime soon, if at all.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada has said Democrats won't push for a no-confidence vote. Some Democrats are privately expressing concern that weighing in on the debate could diminish the power of the retired generals' remarks and invite criticism from Republicans that they are politicizing the war.
On Clinton's request, Sen. John Warner, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, said he would consult with his 23 other committee members about whether a hearing is warranted, as he does with every such request. But the Virginia Republican indicated he was in no hurry to hold a hearing. He said the committee schedule was packed through Memorial Day, by which time the uproar over Rumsfeld could further subside.
A congressional hearing would give Rumsfeld's critics a high-profile national platform while keeping alive a controversy the White House wants to put to rest.
Striking a careful balance, Warner issued a statement this week calling the debate among retired generals about Rumsfeld "an important exercise of the right to freedom of speech."
But Warner noted that Bush has decided to retain Rumsfeld in his Cabinet and said: "I support the president's right to make this decision."
Notably missing was praise for Rumsfeld. There wasn't even lukewarm support.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, top Democrat on the Armed Services Committee, is urging that Warner hold a hearing. But Levin also suggested he was somewhat indifferent about Rumsfeld's future at the Pentagon's helm.
"If I felt his departure would change policy, I'd be all for it. But I think the policy would stay the same," Levin said.
Other Democrats renewed their calls for Rumsfeld's departure.
"He should have been gone two years ago. There's no more to say," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the lead Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.
Republicans recognize that getting rid of Rumsfeld now, three years into the Iraq war, could signal failure, not to mention give Democrats ammunition for this fall's congressional election as they try to wrest control of the House and Senate from the GOP.
Seeking to counter the mounting criticism and head off a hearing, Sen. Jeff Sessions, R-Ala., held a rally-around-Rumsfeld breakfast on Capitol Hill on Tuesday for the secretary and his Republican backers.
Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., was among those who attended. Even though he has clashed with Rumsfeld in the past, Thune said getting rid of Rumsfeld now would hurt the overall effort in Iraq.
"It's the wrong message to send," Thune said.
Plus, he said, Congress' hands are tied even if it wants a fresh face leading the Pentagon for one reason: "He serves at the pleasure of the president."