Rumsfeld Dodges a Bullet

In the end, Senate Democrats didn't get the vote they hoped for. But they still got what they wanted -- a fiery debate on Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's tenure that dominated most of the afternoon.

The Democrats framed their resolution -- offered as an amendment to the defense appropriations bill -- as a broad call to change course in Iraq. The key line: "One indication of a change of course would be to replace the current secretary of defense."

The measure was ultimately scuttled with a procedural move, but not before senators on both sides of the aisle spent several hours debating it.

"I'm not looking to pick a fight with Secretary Rumsfeld or the president," Minority Leader Harry Reid said. "But it's about making America as safe as we can and should be. Secretary Rumsfeld's failed track record is well documented."

Republicans called the move a partisan stunt.

"I can think of no one who has worked harder as secretary of defense than Donald Rumsfeld," said Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, who later moved to dismiss the amendment. "This man deserves the support of the Senate. He does not deserve this opposition, I'm sad to say ... on a purely political basis."

Still, Republicans were quick to counterattack, using the debate as another opportunity to cast Democrats as weak on defense.

"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," said Sen. Jim DeMint, R-S.C.

Since the measure would have been nonbinding -- a "sense of the Senate" only -- Republicans argued it was meaningless, even were it to come to a vote. Congress cannot fire Cabinet secretaries, who serve at the pleasure of the president.

But Democrats cast it as an important symbolic move, in line with Congress' oversight responsibility.

Privately, many Democrats hoped the measure would, at the very least, put Republicans who face tight races in a difficult spot.

A handful of Republicans -- such as Ohio Rep. Pat Tiberi and New Jersey Senate candidate Tom Kean Jr. -- have expressed opposition to Rumsfeld in recent days.

The debate followed a letter sent by Democrats in the House and Senate to President Bush on Monday that urged him to change the civilian leadership at the Defense Department.

Democrats have accused Rumsfeld of cherry-picking intelligence in the run-up to war, and of making numerous mistakes in its execution -- from going into Iraq with too few troops to disbanding the Iraqi army.

They have repeatedly cited Rumsfeld's own past statements on Iraq -- from his predictions about finding weapons of mass destruction to his initial reaction to the looting ("stuff happens") to his comment that "you go to war with the army you have" -- as evidence that he should be dismissed.

"We went to war with the secretary of defense we had. Now it is time to complete the mission," said Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-NY.

The secretary's remarks last week -- likening critics of the war to the appeasers of Nazi Germany in the 1930s -- pushed many Democrats over the edge.

"That was it for me," said Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif.

Whether Democrats can bring up a similar measure in the House is unclear.

"We are hoping at some point in time the Congress will expect accountability," House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer told reporters, calling Rumsfeld's predictions about Iraq "uniformly wrong."

But, he noted, "We are more constrained in the House procedurally."

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