WASHINGTON – Senate Democrats accused the Bush administration Thursday of trying to ram an $87 billion Iraq-Afghanistan money bill through Congress without giving lawmakers enough time to consider it.
But the U.S. administrator in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer (search), told a Senate panel that delays in the request could undermine U.S. operations and eventually hurt national security.
"We need to move urgently to head off a problem of not being able to have essential services and security for Iraq," Bremer told the Senate Armed Services Committee (search).
Bremer has been the Bush administration's main salesman for the $87 billion request. He was testifying at three hearings during his fourth straight day on Capitol Hill. His appearances came as the Democrats stepped up their criticism of the $20.3 billion part of the legislation intended to bankroll reconstruction costs.
The Senate's Republican leaders hope to begin floor debate next week despite Democratic requests for more time for hearings.
"There is no reasonable way that these issues can be adequately thought through, much less properly worked through, by next week," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the committee's top Democrat. "We take months to consider far less significant matters."
Sen. Robert Byrd (search), D-W.Va., urged Bremer to "use your good authorities to impress upon this administration the need to slow down this train."
Chairman John Warner, R-Va., told Byrd he believed the Senate leadership was trying to work out a schedule that would satisfy Republicans and Democrats.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., said the administration has failed to provide details of its plans for Iraq. He said a timetable offered to lawmakers was inadequate.
"This is an insult to the troops and an insult to the Congress," he said. "We want to know where the policy is."
Gen. John Abizaid, chief of U.S. Central Command (search), said the United States needs to have some flexibility in its strategy. "You always run the risk when you set a timetable, to send the wrong signals," he said.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., asked Bremer what would happen if the reconstruction aid wasn't approved.
"It would be directly contrary to America's interest," Bremer said. He said it would lead to greater insecurity, with more Iraqis turning against the United States and more attacks on U.S. forces.
"I think it's a rather grim outlook," he said.
Congressional Democrats have been pushing Bremer for the administration's long-term plans in Iraq. Bremer told a House panel Wednesday that the $20.3 billion is intended to meet urgent needs until Iraqis can do their own reconstruction in 2005.
Future requests for rebuilding aid should be "nothing like this," Bremer told the House Appropriations foreign operations subcommittee. But he told Democrats he could not offer even a rough estimate of what might needed in the years ahead.
The Appropriations Committee's top Democrat, Rep. David Obey of Wisconsin, told Bremer that he can't be expected to vote for Bush's request "if I can't get a clue from you of what the final costs, within reason, within a reasonable range, are expected to be."
"With all due respect, if you can't give us an answer, you're stiffing us," he said.
"Congressman, I resent that," Bremer replied.
"Well, I do too," Obey said.
Though Democrats acknowledged Bush was likely to get most or all of what he was seeking, they were considering possible amendments to the Iraqi reconstruction part of the bill.
Senate Democrats emerging from a closed-door strategy session Wednesday said they were examining the possibility of separating the rebuilding funds from the measure's $66 billion for the Pentagon.
They also said they were thinking about proposals to pay for the rebuilding by suspending scheduled tax cuts for the wealthiest Americans for a year. They also discussed conditioning the rebuilding money on contributions from U.S. allies. Several predicted that the Senate debate -- expected next week -- might not be quick.
Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, strongly oppose splitting the bill or rescinding the tax cuts.