WASHINGTON – Democrats are using the uproar over Walter Reed Army Medical Center as their latest cudgel to batter President Bush for his Iraq war policies as the administration shows signs it fears political damage from the revelations.
Reports of patient neglect and shoddy outpatient rooms at the hospital have brought Army brass to Capitol Hill to explain and apologize. Bush's handling of the war has been widely unpopular with voters, and reports about Walter Reed come on the heels of his decision to send more troops to Iraq — which has also met a negative response from the public.
Democrats are stepping up their anti-war rhetoric and casting Walter Reed as the latest Bush administration failure in planning for the war and other contingencies.
"This is the Katrina of 2007," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., comparing the hospital scandal to the 2005 hurricane that left Gulf Coast residents stranded for days without federal assistance.
For its part, the Bush administration has moved quickly to try to contain the political damage. Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign last Friday, and Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, who was in charge of Walter Reed since August 2006, was ousted from his post a day earlier.
The rapid removal of the two officials was followed by a promise by Vice President Dick Cheney and the president himself that the problems would be fixed, and the creation of high-profile panels to unearth gaps in the system.
In a speech at the American Legion on Tuesday, Bush announced he had asked former Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole, R-Kan., and former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala, a Democrat, to lead a bipartisan probe into the mistreatment of wounded troops.
Bush also directed Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson to set up a task force of officials from various agencies to identify problems in treating wounded troops. To underscore the message that he cares about the troops, Bush referred to the group as a task force on "returning global war on terror heroes."
To further make that point, the administration invited journalists to a naturalization ceremony next Monday at Walter Reed, when Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff and Emilio Gonzalez, director of U.S. Citizenship and Immigration, will swear in five wounded soldiers as new American citizens.
Bush administration officials also headed to Capitol Hill on Tuesday and apologized profusely, one by one saying they were at fault for not delving deeper into reports of staffing problems and a maintenance backlog at Walter Reed.
"I'm deeply chagrined by the events that bring us to this hearing," said David Chu, the Pentagon's personnel chief.
A White House statement released Tuesday said the president's 2008 request for $38.7 billion for military health care was double what it was when he took office.
The rhetoric failed to placate Democrats, who said the Walter Reed problems were shining a spotlight on the administration's failed war policies.
"There is a pattern here that we're just not focused on what needs to be done to help these young men and women," said Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., a 2008 presidential contender.
Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., said the Bush administration failed to plan adequately for the long and bloody war.
"And now they're failing those who have sacrificed so much," said Kennedy.
Focusing the Iraq debate on the treatment of troops could help protect Democrats from GOP charges that proposals by some Democratic lawmakers to cut money for the war would hurt troops in the war zone. The Walter Reed story is also helping Democrats by providing a distraction — if only for now — from the party's internal disagreements over how and when to force the president's hand.
Looking to insulate themselves from any fallout, congressional Republicans have quickly jumped on board with Democrats in denouncing the mistreatment of wounded troops and hurling tough questions at Pentagon officials.
"I am dismayed this ever occurred," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who was captured and wounded during the Vietnam War. "It was a failure in the most basic tenets of command responsibility to take care of our troops."
Army officials on Tuesday repeated assertions that they accept responsibility but denied knowing about most of the problems.
"We have failed to meet our own standards at Walter Reed. For that, I'm both personally and professionally sorry," said Lt. Gen. Kevin C. Kiley, in charge of Walter Reed from 2002 until 2004, when he became Army surgeon general.
Kiley has said he had been aware of some issues, but told the Senate panel he was not aware of specific problems, including a backlog of maintenance orders and a lack of staff to conduct room inspections.
Sen. Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., said Congress might need to revisit an earlier decision to close Walter Reed in light of the increasing number of wounded troops from Iraq. Sen. John Warner, R-Va., said lawmakers should examine its own oversight process, which failed to unearth problems.