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Press Conference With US Senate Leaders & State Legislators

Federal News Service April 19, 2007 Thursday PRESS CONFERENCE WITH SENATE MAJORITY LEADER HARRY REID (D-NV); SENATOR EDWARD KENNEDY (D-MA); AND SENATOR SHERROD BROWN (D-OH); SUBJECT: THE IRAQ WAR; LOCATION: 188 RUSSELL SENATE OFFICE BUILDING, WASHINGTON, D.C. SEN. REID: Thank you all very much for being here, especially these wonderful state legislators. I served in the state legislature for two years. It's a wonderful experience. I was in the assembly for two years, and then four years I was president of the senate as lieutenant governor. Wonderful memories. I was there speaking to the legislature a couple of weeks ago, and it brought back great memories. Seeing each of you does the same. I wanted to tell each of you what I told the president when I met with him yesterday. Just a couple of days ago in the Capitol, just a few -- just a little ways from here, I did an event with two retired generals, General Gard, General Johns. General Gard has a Ph.D., just like General Johns. General Gard's a lieutenant general, retired, three-star general. He said there -- and this is the message I delivered to the president -- during Vietnam the war wasn't going well. As was learned from reading the memoirs and press accounts and interviews that we've had following that war, at the time there were 24,000 Americans killed in Vietnam, President Johnson had to make a decision. The secretary of Defense, the secretary of State and the president knew the war was not winnable, but President Johnson did not want a war loss on his watch, and so he surged in Vietnam, some tens of thousands of new troops to Vietnam. After the surge was over, we added to the 24,000 dead Americans 34,000. Now, I believe myself that the secretary of State, the secretary of Defense -- and you have to make your own decision as to what the president knows -- that this war is lost and that the surge is not accomplishing anything, as indicated by the extreme violence in Iraq yesterday. Now, I said this is how I feel. But in addition to my feelings, a majority of the United States Senate, a majority of the United States House of Representatives has said the surge should not go forward. Twenty-nine state legislatures and hundreds of state legislators acknowledge that the war should come to an end. The American people believe that. The Iraq Study Group clearly defined that. It's time for us to change direction in Iraq, redeploy our troops, as indicated in the supplemental appropriation bill in the House and the Senate that we're soon going to send to the president in the form of a conference report. Redeploy the droops. Does that mean pull them out? No, it doesn't. But it does mean the troops that are there should focus on counterterrorism, force protection and training the Iraqis. As usual, the voice of reason to the caucus has been the senior senator from the State of Massachusetts, telling us months ago in our caucus this is a process, let's work through the process. I so appreciate his companionship, hand on the shoulder on occasion, these phone calls, to give me and the rest of the caucus the courage to move forward on this most important issue. Senator Kennedy? SEN. KENNEDY: Thank you very much. I first of all want to thank our leader, and our Democratic leader in the Senate of the United States, and someone that has been such a leader in terms of national policy, foreign policy, defense policy, in urging the president of the United States to consider the actions that have been taken in the Senate and the House of Representatives and now, we hear, in state legislatures across the country, that we ought to bring this war in Iraq to an end. So I thank Harry Reid for all of his leadership in this extremely important area. I was here in the United States Senate and saw how difficult it was to bring the Vietnam War to an end, in spite of the fact that we had leadership in the Senate. I was here at the time of -- in the United States Senate when we had the Contra War; took five years to bring the Contra War to an end. And now everyone understands what an incredible mistake and how costly that particular. That time, we didn't listen in the Senate and the House of Representatives. We didn't listen closely enough to the American people. Today we are, because we have the representatives here of some 29 states, blue states, red states, across this country -- that are speaking for those people that are in the coffee shops, that are working in local mom-and-pop stores, people that work in bowling alleys, those that work in the fast food industries, those that work in industries across this country. And they're speaking to their legislators, and their legislators are speaking to the president of the United States. That says, we support our troops, because it was the Democrats who were standing up to arm our troops and to make sure they had the up-armoring of the Humvees. We stand by our troops at Abu Ghraib, even though the administration has always failed to really come to grips with that terrible situation. We stand by our troops at Walter Reed. It's been the Democrats that have been supporting and fighting for the veterans and those that have been wounded. All you have to do is read the record and understand what's been happening. We stand by the American troops, and we will continue to do so. We continue to do so, and the legislators believe that that's extremely important. But we also understand what our top military leaders have stated to the Armed Services Committee, which I am a member, and what the political leadership in Iraq has stated -- our allies. And that is, there has to be something more than a military solution. There has to be a political resolution. Four years, the greatest army in the history of the world is basically stalemated against 28 million people, against a country that we defeated 10 years before, against a country that had a $3-billion- a-year defense budget. We understand that there is not a military resolution. There has to be a political resolution. That is something the administration refuses to recognize. That's the heart and soul of the amendment which has been included in the supplemental. And that is the heart and soul of what the American people feel, the Baker-Hamilton committee has reported out. Senator Brown, Sherrod Brown, has been a leader in these efforts, and then he'll introduce our representatives of the states that will comment about what is happening in so many of their states. Senator Sherrod Brown. SEN. BROWN: Thank you, Senator Kennedy. It's a pleasure to be here, and I appreciate the courage and outspokenness of Leader Reid and the 40 years of leadership, 40-plus years of leadership on all kinds of social justice and war-and-peace issues and especially for our nation's veterans from Senator Kennedy. Thank you all for joining us. And I especially thank the state legislators. And I appreciate very much the involvement of Senator Betts (ph), and Leader Doughtery (sp) and Pingree, nice to see you. And Hannah tells me she knows my daughter, who's now living in -- now working in Maine. So good to see you. Thank you. Four years ago, the president of the United States told the nation that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. Then the president told us that Saddam Hussein was aiding and abetting al Qaeda. Earlier this year the president tried to convince the country that we should escalate this war. Then the president ordered the extension of active duty tours in Iraq to 15 months, and the deployment of sometimes under-equipped, ill-equipped National Guard units. Now the president's threatening to veto any legislation that establishes a plan for withdrawal. The president refused -- has refused to listen to the voters, refused to listen to the Iraq Study Group, refused to listen to his own military advisers, those that were free to speak out; is refusing to listen to hundreds, literally hundreds of state legislators across the country. And now the president -- then the president is refusing to listen to Congress. Make no mistake, as Senator Kennedy said, every member of -- every Democratic member of the House and Senate has stood up for veterans. The leadership of Chairman Filner in the House, the leadership of Chairman Akaka and Patty Murray and others in the Senate fighting for veterans, fighting for -- to make our VA system work, understanding we need a 50-year plan, literally a 50-year plan on veterans health because of the devastating psychological and physical injuries brought on by this war. But more of the same is not a plan for our troops and it will not end the war in Iraq. This war has made our country and our world less safe. Every day in Iraq not just creates new casualties, it makes us less and less safe. Iraq is in the midst of a civil war that has killed 142 men and women in my state, in the state of Ohio, and sent thousands -- hundreds -- hundreds and hundreds and hundreds in my state and tens of thousands around the country -- they've created all kinds of psychological and physical injuries. Congress will continue -- we will absolutely fully fund and support our troops, as we have, while mandating establishing conditions that will bring our troops home. If the president won't take responsibility for his failures -- and he certainly has not done that -- and lead our troops home, then Congress will do that. We owe it to our soldiers, our sailors, our airmen and our Marines. Rather than threaten a veto, the president should listen to military leaders, should listen to the American people, should listen to the elected officials all over our country, state, local and federal, who represent the will of the American people, and work with Congress to change our course in Iraq. It's my pleasure to introduce the majority leader in the Maine House of Representatives, Hannah Pingree. REP. HANNAH PINGREE (D-ME, majority leader, Maine House of Representatives): Thank you. Well, thank you for having me here today. It's certainly an honor to stand with our senators who are taking a very brave and courageous stand against this war in Iraq. My name is Hannah Pingree. I'm the majority leader of the Maine House. I represent a very rural district of islands off the coast of Maine. And I'm here with a message, I think, of both frustration and heartbreak. On a regular basis, I'm driving into our state capital in Augusta, and the flag, for what it seems like has been months now, has stood at half-mast. Our governor on a regular basis has asked for the flags at half-mast because of the loss of another Maine National Guard troop or member of the Army. On a regular basis, we have memorials in our state legislature memorializing those Mainers who have been lost in this war in Iraq. And it's just -- it comes at a level of heartbreak when we, as legislators, feel frustration with this war, frustration for how we got into this war, and our constituents on a regular basis are continuing to be lost. My constituents have come to me as a legislator and said, "We are so frustrated. What can we do?" And legislators all over this country have heard the same frustration from their constituents. I represent a very small district, and to get elected, I knock on doors. And just this past fall, I spent a lot of my fall knocking on doors and meeting people. And while they were concerned with health care, they were concerned with property taxes, you know, the standard issues that you hear about when running for a state-elective office, their frustration was largely with the war in Iraq. And as a state legislator, I feel very powerless to impact this war, but we wanted to be able to do something. Earlier this year, 93 representatives and senators from Maine signed a letter addressing -- addressed to our congressional delegation, urging them to oppose the president's troop escalation proposal. In part we wrote, as the cost of maintaining our presence in Iraq escalates, it's our most vulnerable citizens who feel the pain of the continuing dramatic shift in priorities for our federal tax dollars. We cannot in good conscience stand by idly as more funds are channeled to war efforts while children in Maine and across the country are facing the very real threat of losing health care insurance. While a growing bipartisan coalition of congressmen and women in Washington are concerned that the president's escalation plan is not a prudent method of ending this war, here at home low-income Mainers are also concerned that they won't be able to afford heating oil next winter because of increased federal funding for fuel assistance. I stand by this message today. While our dedicated service men and women are separated from their families and put in the line of fire for service in a war that lacks clear direction, at home families across the country are feeling the pressure of a dangerous shift in priorities from this president. On behalf of my constituents, I urge those folks in Congress to do everything they can to bring our troops home and end this war. And with that, I want to introduce Steve Doherty, the former Senate leader from Montana. STEVE DOHERTY (former Senate leader from Montana): Thank you, Hannah. It's indeed an honor to be here to share the podium with Senators Reid and Kennedy and Brown, people who have taken tough on positions and provided leadership to this country. I'm the co-chair of the Progressive States Network. The Progressive States Network is an organization that was put together a little over a year-and-a-half ago to provide a clearing house and a brokerage for progressive legislators all over the country. And one of the things that we started hearing last fall when we were talking to folks who were campaigning and after the election was we need to do something. Because when I'm standing in a grocery store checkout line in my district, people are tapping me on the shoulder and saying, what are we going to do about Iraq? What are you going to do about Iraq? Now, state legislators get to deal where the rubber meets the road. We get to deal with sewers and we get to deal with schools, and it's where people live. And where those people live -- the funds are being diminished, the opportunities for first responders, our National Guardsmen and women, our EMTs, our firemen, our policemen, our policewomen -- those are the folks who are in the Guard units that are being deployed overseas -- it has a real impact. And the fact that 29 different state legislatures introduced either resolutions or letters and passed 15 of them is indicative of the fact that there is a groundswell out there for this happening. And in addition to Hannah and Senator Betts, we also have here from Kentucky Representative Joni Jenkins; from Washington State -- SEN. REID (?): Stand up, each one of you. SEN. DOHERTY: Yeah, you can stand up. I just want to acknowledge you. Also from Kentucky, Representative Ruth Palumbo; Representative Mary Lou Marzian; and from a neighbor in the Northwest, Senator Jeanne Kohl-Wells from Washington State. This just isn't an inside the Beltway phenomenon. Progressive states heard and, with the assistance, particularly of Senator Kennedy, in doing conference calls linking together different legislators from across the country from across the political spectrum, we brought the debate where it needs to be done -- at the local level. And if you read through the quips, it's an amazing about the debate that was had in those states, oftentimes a very good and civil debate, a debate that needs to be had because the states are hurting. And the message is pretty clear: end the war, do it now, do it as quickly as you can, because we have needs at home, and we represent those folks. And one of the people who can best tell you about it is a fellow from the state of Kansas, Senator Betts. SEN. DONALD BETTS (D-KS; Kansas state senator): Good afternoon. I bring you greetings from the great state of Kansas and from the Honorable Governor Kathleen Sebelius. I introduced my resolution in concern for the Kansas National Guard troops, the equipment that will be shipped overseas with the escalation, in addition to a young man out of Kansas who was paralyzed from the chest down because he was ill-equipped and underequipped in the back of a truck. It was by the respect from another senator, Senator Brungard from the state of Kansas, who allowed me to have the hearing. There was no action on the bill, on the resolution, so it's just sitting in committee just to die. I think we owe a duty to the people of Kansas, to the people of the United States of America to be accountable. When over $2.5 billion are being spent week, there's a problem. When there are unanswered questions about this war and how long we're going to be at war, there is a problem. There are questions that need to be answered, and the American people deserve that. Their tax dollars deserve it and their families deserve it. Many of our troops will come back disabled; missing ligaments (sic); they will be mentally traumatized as a result of this war. Is there a plan to take care of them and their families when they return home? There are so many unanswered questions, yet we continue to -- or the president of the United States decides to escalate more troops to fight a war with many unanswered questions. There is a lot that needs to be done, and in the midst of a war that has raised thousands of questions around the country, and particularly the state of Kansas, I am concerned. I am a concerned legislator and I'm sure my colleagues around the concerned. And I congratulate Senators Kennedy and Senator Reid for bringing this press conference together, because ladies and gentlemen, we are at war. We go through our day every single day and we do our -- we go to work and we go to school and we come back home, but we have young men and women and mothers and fathers fighting for our freedoms, so we have to fight for theirs. And I hope that we can do something about this. I hope that the United States Congress and the United States Senate will do something about this. And I pray that the president of the United States has some compassion and understands the critical need for our troops and their families and the citizens of the United States of America. Thank you. SEN. REID: Ted, I think you're going to have to take most of the questions. I have to be someplace at 1:00. So -- Q Senator Reid, could I ask you a question? SEN. REID: Sure. Q Did you use those words with the president yesterday? Did you say to him, "The war is lost"? And how would you describe his reaction? SEN. REID: I think you better ask him. I don't want to talk about -- you know, he's already leaked stuff to the press about this, so you ask him. But I told him just what I told all of you. Q Senator Reid? SEN. REID: Yes. Q The way the conference stands now, do you think you would -- it would be difficult or even impossible to pass legislation that would have a firm or binding timeline on it? SEN. REID: Well, as you know, I support, with Senator Feingold, legislation that would start redeployment in 120 days, and there would be a cut-off date of April 1st, 1900 and -- I mean, 2008. And I support that. And there will be a time when I'm going to be looking with Senator Feingold and others for a time to do that. When you talk about impossible, I'm not sure much is impossible legislatively. The American people, as indicated with these state legislators, are fed up with what's going on with this war and other things. We're in the fifth year of this war, the fifth year. We're an occupying force in Iraq, and it's time it changed. And so I feel very strongly that, as the good senator from Kansas indicated, $2.5 billion a week is a lot of money. We're struggling for a few dollars to make the Leave No Child Behind Act (sic/No Child Left Behind Act) a more meaningful piece of legislation. We're struggling to do things that will allow us to have better health care. We have no money for anything. It's all going to the war. Q Senator Reid, Senator Snowe has introduced a bill today that would establish a plan for -- require General Petraeus to begin planning for a withdrawal if the Iraqi government, if it doesn't meet certain benchmarks. Do you think that kind of an approach might have a better chance of attracting broader support in the Senate? SEN. REID: Well, I think -- I'm glad Senator Snowe has done that. She's -- I'm glad she's being proactive. I wish she would look at what we have done and what we will do with our conference report. General Petraeus needs not look any place for legislation. He only needs to do what he has said, and that is, the war cannot be won militarily. He said 20 percent of the war will be won militarily; 80 percent will have to be won diplomatically, economically and politically. So General Petraeus should do what he thinks is going to work, and I don't think he needs legislation for that. Somebody should -- here's how I feel about all this. I know that I was like the odd guy out yesterday at the White House, but I at least told him what he needed to hear, not what he wanted to hear. And more people have to start telling George Bush what he needs to hear, not what he wants to hear. I did that. My conscience is clear, because I believe the war at this stage can only be won diplomatically, politically and economically. And the president needs to come to that realization, and he needs more than just Harry Reid telling him that. Ted, you take -- Q Senator? Senator, the Republicans are now characterizing -- characterizing -- SEN. REID: I'm through. I'm out of here. (Laughter.) Q Well, Senator Kennedy, the -- SEN. KENNEDY: Thanks a lot! (Laughter.) Sherrod, where are you? This is Sherrod Brown. Q Senator, Republican leaders are now saying that the Democrats are calling for a "surrender plan." (Inaudible) -- that this war is lost, we want to redeploy, is that what the Democrats -- SEN. KENNEDY: Well, you know, that's -- it doesn't even need to be dignified with a basic response. What we have had from the Republicans and from the administration from the beginning, for those of us who listened carefully to the combat arms in the Armed Services Committee, that attended the intelligence hearings and followed this very closely, when those of us voted "nay" at the time to give the president authorization, our patriotism was being questioned. That was the first phase. Then, we when we came back to the time of the election, the scare tactics were out there. Don't you remember that? If we're not successful there, they're going to come to Boston, they're going to come from Baghdad to Boston. I don't think people in Massachusetts really bought in to how the Shi'a and the Sunnis were going to eventually come into Boston. Al Qaeda is a serious factor and a force, but of course they weren't there prior to the time of the war, and they are there now. So the idea that their wordsmiths are out there now trying to misrepresent and mischaracterize the discussion and debate doesn't surprise me at all. But as we've heard very eloquently from the state legislators, the American people aren't buying into it, they're not buying into it. They understand full and well this was the wrong war at the wrong time, riddled with mistakes all the way through; lack of accountability. And the -- it is time to bring our troops home to honor them as the heroes that they really are, and the earlier the better. Yeah? Q Senator Kennedy, you said it's the wrong war at the wrong time, and we need to bring the troops home, how is that not a surrender? Help us out with -- SEN. KENNEDY: What it -- is because the -- it's a surrender to who? Who are we surrendering to? This is an unconventional war and has to be dealt with, with unconventional ways. This is administration that has never understood the nature of the threat or the ability to respond to it. So they have to accept full responsibilities. As one that felt that we ought to have gone after Osama bin Laden after he attacked the United States of America, in Afghanistan, I'm glad to defend my position. Osama bin Laden is still alive and well after five years. Afghanistan was the targets where al Qaeda comes. This administration has misled, misrepresented the security challenges for this country. American people understand what's at risk and what is going to be success and what is going to be a failure. What is failure is this bankrupt policy, this effective no-win policy of the administration. It isn't the policy of those of us who understood the nature of the challenge as we're moving ahead. Maybe we'd hear from the grass roots on some of these. Can -- go ahead. SEN. BROWN: I'll make one comment. Senator Reid -- and then I'd like -- Senator Reid said that the president needs to hear -- it's time the president listened to -- it's not just the president -- what he wants to hear but what he needs to hear. And the president has continued to rely on two groups of people. He's relied on people that have failed every step of the way in this policy; failed to make the right decision, as Senator Kennedy said, to go after Osama bin Laden; failed in the decision to lose our focus on Iraq -- on Afghanistan; and failed in their entire war plan. While the troops have done everything we ask of them, the civilian leadership in the White House has absolutely failed. The second group the president's relied on is the same spinmeisters that they've used throughout the war, the ones that accused Senator Kennedy and me of being less than patriotic when we voted against this war, joined by the 150 members of the House and Senate, of both parties -- the people that make these -- throw around these accusations today that have no idea what their plan is to get us out of this civil war.