WASHINGTON – Democrat after Democrat took to the Senate floor on Wednesday calling for President Bush to fire Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, but Republicans gave a spirited defense and headed off a no-confidence vote.
Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., submitted the resolution, which was the latest Democratic attack on the Bush administration's handling of the Iraq war. "'Staying the course' is not a strategy for success," the measure said.
Republicans said the move was a political stunt and they stood by Rumsfeld. Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, killed the resolution, which contained a nonbinding call for Rumsfeld's ouster. Stevens used a procedural move because the resolution was not germane to the pending Pentagon spending bill.
Reid said Rumsfeld was "a leading participant in the administration's cherry-picking and manipulation of intelligence in the run-up to war, exaggerating Iraq's connections to Al Qaeda and the threat posed by its weapons of mass destruction.
"As a result of his and others actions, the nation was rushed to war based on a faulty case."
The Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, said that "on issue after issue, Secretary Rumsfeld has made the wrong decisions."
Republicans counterpunched. Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., said Kerry sounded like a "Monday morning quarterback."
GOP lawmakers also portrayed Democrats as retreating on Iraq and the fight against terrorism.
"If my Democrat colleagues spent half the time helping us fight this war on terror as they do attacking the administration, we'd be a lot closer to winning this war," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C. "They are united in the idea of retreat and defeatism."
Ahead of the fall elections that will determine control of Congress, Democrats are trying to mount a political offensive on the war, which remains unpopular with voters.
According to the resolution, the current policy on Iraq "has made America less secure, reduced the readiness of our troops, and burdened America's taxpayers with over $300 billion in additional debt. ... One indication of a change of course would be to replace the current secretary of defense."
Rumfeld won the backing of the Senate majority leader. "The American people want us to be safe and secure. They recognize it takes bold leadership," Sen. Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said on NBC's "Today" show. "I strongly support Don Rumsfeld."
Because there was no vote on the resolution, GOP senators avoided an unappealing choice: voting to support the way Bush and Rumsfeld have handled the war or breaking with the party and risking alienating Republican voters.
Some GOP senators, such as John McCain of Arizona, have criticized Rumsfeld. Republican candidates Tom Kean of New Jersey and Stephen Laffey of Rhode Island, who is giving Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., a difficult race for renomination, have called for Rumsfeld's resignation.
Democrats say Rumsfeld, as a principal architect of the war, bears much responsibility for past mistakes and the current difficulties. They are livid, too, about a speech last week in which Rumsfeld alluded to critics of the administration's war policies in terms associated with the failure to stop Nazism in the 1930s.
Democrats reiterated criticisms that Rumsfeld exaggerated prewar intelligence about Iraq's having weapons of mass destruction; was slow to provide adequate body armor for U.S. troops; and said he consistently underestimating the strength of the insurgency and the level of danger facing U.S. troops.
"What CEO of a company could ultimately perform the way that Secretary Rumsfeld has performed and still be at the head of that company? None," said Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J.
The White House and congressional Republicans are framing the November elections as a referendum on which party would do a better job on fighting terrorism and protecting the United States.
"It must be discouraging to our troops and to our generals when all of their work is second-guessed by this kind of ploy," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the second-ranking Republican. "The Democrat amendment may rile up the liberal base, but it won't kill a single terrorist or prevent a single attack."
The top Democrat on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, said Iraqis should no longer assume the U.S. commitment is open-ended.