WASHINGTON—Amid signs of weakening public support for President Bush, Republican leaders on Tuesday launched a vigorous defense of administration policy in Iraq, denouncing its critics and saving their toughest words for liberal Democratic Sen. Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts.
Democrats fought back, accusing the Republicans of trying to impugn the patriotism of critics and silence legitimate debate on a policy that is dividing Americans.
Kennedy drew the brunt of the Republican attack because of his accusation last week that the war in Iraq was a politically motivated "fraud" and the administration had had to "bribe" allies to join the coalition that's now in Iraq.
"I think some of those comments have no place in the dialogue of the Congress of the United States, when it is our mission specifically to protect the men and women of the armed forces and their families," said Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, R-Texas, called Kennedy's remarks "as disgusting as they are false."
In reply, Senate Democratic leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said the Republican attack was "McCarthyesque."
Behind the bitter exchanges was mounting evidence that Iraq is polarizing the country, emboldening Democrats to challenge Bush and forcing Republicans into a defensive crouch. Democrats specifically have targeted Bush's request for $87 billion to pay for military and reconstruction costs in Iraq and Afghanistan, a sum that even some Republicans find daunting.
A new poll by the Pew Research Center indicated that 59 percent of those surveyed oppose spending the money, and half say the United States should cede some military control to the United Nations, a suggestion President Bush has rejected.
Likewise, a Gallup poll this week found that only 50 percent of Americans thought the situation in Iraq was worth going to war over and 50 percent approve of Bush's overall performance, the lowest rating of his presidency.
Eager to stem rising criticism within Republican ranks, the administration on Tuesday sent L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator in Iraq, to answer questions at a lunch for Senate Republicans. In testimony Monday, Bremer had urged senators to approve the $87 billion request quickly.
But after Tuesday's lunch, Republicans such as Sens. Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine said they still had questions about how to pay for operations in Iraq, particularly reconstruction. Collins floated the idea of issuing a secured loan rather than an outright appropriation, but Republican leaders rejected the idea.
The lack of Republican unity on reconstruction spending has strengthened the Democrats' ability to demand that the administration provide a detailed plan and timetable for turning Iraq over to an elected government and for pulling U.S. troops out.
Kennedy, in an interview with the Associated Press last week, said planning for the war "was made up in Texas, announced in January to the Republican leadership that war was going to take place and was going to be good politically. This whole thing was a fraud."
Kennedy was referring to a widely publicized speech in January 2002 in which White House political adviser Karl Rove said Bush would sustain the war on terrorism and that it would reap political benefits. Rove didn't mention Iraq in that speech.
In an interview with Fox News that aired Monday, Bush called Kennedy's remarks "uncivil." On Tuesday, Sen. Robert Bennett, R-Utah, accused Kennedy of making an unsubstantiated charge and suggested he be rebuked. Kennedy took to the floor of the Senate and stepped up his criticism.
"There's no question that this White House sees political advantage in the war. You can see it in Karl Rove's speeches to Republican strategists. And you can see it in the way they attack the patriotism of those who question them. The administration needs to show the American people and the world a plausible plan to correct this colossal failure in our policy," Kennedy said.
(The Pew survey cited in graf 8 polled 1,500 adults between last Wednesday and Monday and has a margin of error of 3 percentage points. The Gallup poll cited in graf 9 surveyed 1,003 adults and also has a margin of error of 3 percentage points.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.