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Conference Call Briefing With Senator Ken Salazar (D-CO) Subjects Include: Iraq War, Transportation Funding for Colorado


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SEN. SALAZAR: Well, thank you all for being on the call this afternoon. We were -- we had some technical difficulties connecting up people at the beginning, so I apologize for that at the outset.

Let me first say I am headed back to Iraq to meet with our U.S. troops there and to -- and with the Iraqi military leaders and officials, and our American military there, as well. This will be my third trip into Iraq. I have been there in 2005 and 2006, and this will be my trip into that area in 2007. I'll be traveling with Senator Nelson of Nebraska, Max Baucus of Montana, and Olympia Snowe of Maine.

I want to see first hand what's happening on the ground after having listened to the reports by General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. And as I was getting ready for this trip into Iraq, I was reviewing some past notes that I have taken on my trips into Iraq. In March of 2005, when I met with General Petraeus in Iraq, at that point in time he was in charge of training the Iraqi military and security forces. And at that point his statement to me was that by the end of the year 2005, the Iraqis should have the desired capability for security within Iraq. That was in 2005.

I was back there again in March of 2006, and in meetings with General Casey and General Chiarelli and our military leadership, I was told that 2006 was the year of securing Iraq, that in 2006 the goal for our American effort in Iraq was to make up the ear of the police. 2006 was to be the year of the police to bring about the needed security in Iraq. At that point in time, Lieutenant General Chiarelli, who was in charge of our troops there, told us that the 130,000 troops in Iraq would be able to bring about the security that was required during that year.

Now in 2007, we fast forward to General Petraeus' report, and what he has portrayed as being a beginning of the withdrawal in Iraq would simply take us back to the same level of troops that we were at in 2006. So even if you assume that we withdraw the troops that he set forth in his report beginning now -- in December into the summer of next year -- in the summer of 2008, we will have somewhere in the neighborhood of 130,000 troops in Iraq. That's two years after I was in Iraq in 2006 when we had 130,000 troops there.

And so the question which I still very much have in my mind is, for how long are we going to be able to sustain the troop presence and require the sacrifices that we are making our men and women in uniform take on the ground in Iraq, and for how long are we going to be able to continue to finance the effort in Iraq? You know, my understanding is that there is in the neighborhood of $250 billion that the president is requesting for additional funding in the war in Iraq. That will get us to a level where we will have expended up to $750 billion, that's three-quarters of a trillion dollars in the war effort in Iraq through the summer of next year.

You know, I have the question as to whether or not that level of commitment and that level of expected expenditure is the appropriate way for us to go in Iraq. You know, we'll find out more in my trip to Iraq in the days ahead, and then we'll work with my colleagues, hopefully on both the Democratic and Republican side, to see whether we can fashion a bipartisan way forward in Iraq.

I have stated during the last year as I've worked on this issue that it is my view that we need to have a mission change in Iraq, that we need to move our troops from having a mission that is defined by combat and essentially policing a sectarian civil war in Iraq to one in which we have a more -- a more narrow and limited mission in Iraq. And that narrow and limited mission is to chase Al-Qaeda through our special operations forces, to make sure that we are protecting our forces and our assets in Iraq, and that we're providing training to the Iraqis so that they can take over their responsibility, and that is to provide their own security.

You know, I continue to have conversations with both my Democratic and Republican colleagues to see whether there is some way in which we can join forces in moving a bill forward. I don't yet have an answer with respect to which of the bills will be able to put together a coalition that might muster the 60 votes, but I continue to work on that even today.

I wanted to comment briefly on a couple of other things that are important to Colorado. The first is transportation, the passage of the transportation bill today includes $158 million for Colorado. That's a very significant investment in helping us deal with the very huge road challenges that we have in Colorado. They range from projects in the Denver metro area, which include $140 million for the light rail projects, and to the Denver West Corridor, as well as the Southeast Corridor for the T-REX project, to projects in the Pikes Peak area and Arkansas River valley area, the valley, and throughout the state of Colorado. They are all important projects and meet some of the most important transportation priorities of our state.

And thirdly, I want to comment on legislation I introduced today relating to the closure of the FSA offices, the Colorado Farm Service Agency has currently -- has proposed closing five county offices in the state of Colorado in Bent County, Larimer, Rio Grande, Conejos, and El Paso County. For those of us who know the way of life in rural areas, the FSA office in a county is akin to having your school building closed in the county when you only have one school building in the county.

For us in Conejos County, when I think about the FSA office in La Jara being closed, it would mean a very important and symbolic closure that would send the wrong signal to rural America as we're trying to revitalize rural America. It's like telling them you're not important enough for us to have an FSA office in your county. So I have introduced legislation to have the U.S. Department of Agriculture have a one-year moratorium with respect to the closure of any offices so that then we can move forward with a more strategic program concerning whatever efficiency measures the USDA and FSA want to find with respect to their offices.

So with that, I'll go ahead and open it up to any questions you might have.

Q Senator, it's Anne Mulkern at the Denver Post. I'm just wondering if you can tackle a little bit about next week in Iraq. I realize you haven't gone yet. You haven't gathered the information you need there. But do you have any plans beyond ISG bill? I've been talking to some people about it who say that there's a sense that it doesn't have enough teeth to push forward. What is your reaction to that and is there anything else in the works that you're talking to people about?

SEN. SALAZAR: Anne, first of all, we -- my trip into Iraq is to continue to gather information. I obviously have the reports from both General Petraeus and Crocker, as well as other information on the many reports that have been issued in Iraq that I will be reviewing in more detail. In Iraq, I hope to be able to talk to, first and foremost, our American troops on the ground themselves.

And I want to talk to soldiers who are on the front lines, as well as to our military leadership, and I will have the opportunity to do that.

I also will spend time with the Iraqi government leaders to get a sense from them in terms of the pace in which they're moving forward or not moving forward with respect to some of the benchmarks that we had expected them to move forward with. So for me, it's an information-gathering mission into Iraq.

With respect to legislation that we'll move forward with, I think it is still very much a matter in formation. I think there are different senators that are looking at different legislative vehicles. You know, my focus and energy since December has been on the implementation of the Iraq Study Group recommendations. I still think it is the only coherent, comprehensive, bipartisan way forward that has been put on the table since the beginning of this war, now almost five years ago. And I think there are many elements of that -- of those recommendations which are still appropriate and relevant today.

There may be some toughening-up of our bill that we can do, and we are having conversations about doing that at this point. There are also other groups of senators that are having conversations about legislation that they hope to move forward with, and we will be talking to them as the days go forward.

Q Senator Salazar, this is Manu Raju with The Hill newspaper. Senator Reid said today that there would be four to six Democratic amendments during the debate -- the Defense Authorization Bill debate. Has he given you any assurances that the Iraq Study Group amendment will be part of that debate?

SEN. SALAZAR: Yeah, we talked about our Iraq Study Group amendment as being part of that debate. I have not received a commitment from him that it will be included in the number of amendments that will be moved forward. You know, obviously there are other amendments that have been debated before and voted upon, including the Levin-Reid amendment, the Levin-Feingold amendment, the Webb amendment, and it would be my hope at this point that with some modifications we might be able to get a vote on the Iraq Study Group legislation.

Q What kind of modifications are you referring to?

SEN. SALAZAR: You know, the modification that I think makes most sense is to require the mission change that was contemplated by the Iraq Study Group, which I believe we need to make, and that is to have our troops move from a combat mission to the more limited missions that we specify in the legislation, which the Iraq Study Group also formulated as a longer-term mission for our troops. We -- we're looking at firming up the language that would address that mission change.

Q Thank you.

Q Senator Salazar, this is Rick Cowan from Reuters. You had mentioned 250 billion (dollars) being requested for the war. We'd been hearing 145 billion (dollars) and then another 50 billion (dollars) on top of that for Iraq and Afghanistan. Can you say where you're getting the 250 billion (dollars) figure?

SEN. SALAZAR: The $145 billion figure and the $50 billion figure are the official figures that we have seen. But as has been the case with the Iraq war and the Afghanistan war, they've always exceeded the amount of money that has been requested. And so the result of that has been that the administration has had to come back for additional funding for the war effort. So, you know, you add the 145 billion (dollars) and the 50 billion (dollars), you're at 195 billion (dollars), $200 billion. And it's likely that as the effort proceeds that additional money would be required in the way that it has in the past.

Q Thank you.

Q Senator, Ed Sealover. You mentioned the road funding dollars that are coming back to Colorado. I know a lot of transportation experts had said that they don't believe the gas tax is going to be sustainable for much longer with the increase in fuel efficient cars. Was there any discussion about indexing the gas tax to inflation or possibly coming up with a new method to collect revenues for road building?

SEN. SALAZAR: Ed, there was not, in any of the deliberations that I was involved, any discussion about any need to increase the gas tax at this point in time. I think what the Appropriations Committee did in transportation is to work within the budget approved by the Congress, which is a PAYGO budget that won't increase the deficit of our country and to fit in the transportation priorities within that budget.

You know, there is a longer-term question with respect to infrastructure in this country, and infrastructure in the state of Colorado, and how we're going to fund those infrastructure needs. You know, the governor and the general assembly have moved forward with their -- the Blue Ribbon Commission in Colorado. I think it's important that they do that because so much of the needs with respect to transportation are generated from state dollars. But at the federal level, I have not -- at least with respect to highways -- at this point, I have not seen any deliberations on the part of anybody with respect to any increase on the gas tax.

Q I have a follow-up question. This is Christa Marshall from the Denver Post. I attended your speech at the auto dealers conference this morning. I just wanted to ask you, what was your main goal in being there? Do you think you changed any minds being there? And second, I also spoke to one of the auto dealers, Tim Jackson from Colorado, who emphasized that the industry doesn't have the technology to implement the CAFE standards in the Senate energy bill. So I was wondering if you could respond to that?

SEN. SALAZAR: Well, my goal in meeting with the National Auto Dealers Association, they are the auto dealers from throughout the country, was to talk to them about the importance of our energy agenda for the country. I, you know, I have said this many times, I believe our energy agenda in this 21st century is one of the top three issues that we need to work on nationally because of the national security, environmental security, and economic opportunity and security issues involved. I thought it was important for the auto dealers to hear that. And as part of that, one of the things that is very important for us is how we become a much more fuel efficient society. Transportation consumes 70 percent of the oil that we import into this country and we need to lessen our addiction to foreign oil.

And CAFE standards is certainly a way to go. 35 miles-per-gallon by the year 2022 I think is a reasonable CAFE standard for us to attain. You know, the expert tell us -- experts tell us that it's attainable, that it's doable. I know we've gotten pushback from Detroit and from some auto dealers, but I will tell you auto dealers within Colorado, when they have talked to me individually, they tell me that they do think it's a doable thing, that we can, in fact, get to 35 miles-per-gallon by the year 2022. And so, you know, my hope is that, you know, Detroit and the auto dealers will recognize that we do have to move forward with significant increases in CAFE standards for our national vehicle fleets.

I also believe that it's appropriate for us to provide assistance to Detroit for them to retool their manufacturing capacities to build more fuel efficient vehicles here in the country. You know, this morning I had spoken with Senator Stabenow before that speech about the possibility of providing private activity funds for our auto manufacturers to be able to retool their facilities to provide more highly fuel efficient vehicles. Of course, I think the main point I wanted to make with the auto dealers is that the energy agenda for the nation is not something which is going to be a flash in the pan today or last year. This is an agenda that we're going to be on for a very long time. And conservation and fuel efficiency are one of the keystones of that agenda.

Q Senator, this is Justin Thompson from Scripps-Howard Foundation Wire.

SEN. SALAZAR: Hey, Justin.

Q I had a question about your opinion of the situation with the ad. I saw that on Monday a senator actually introduced an amendment to a bill to officially condemn it. And I've heard some other Republican leaders, including John Boehner, who called today from Baghdad saying that, you know, Republican -- Democrats' unwillingness to come out and say that they oppose it. And Pete King also said this, that it's going to take away the Democrats' credibility and it's going to take away their political capital when 2008 comes around. So I was just wondering if you could comment a little bit on that?

SEN. SALAZAR: Justin, I appreciate the question. You know, I think the ad in the New York Times is wrong. I think it sent the wrong message and I think it was inappropriate. Just like those thousands of groups out there, there are many who are making statements and doing things that I disagree with. You know, I disagreed with the anti-war protesters who were trying to disrupt the hearings where the legislative committees in Congress were hearing from General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker. But at the end of the day, we are a free country and we have the First Amendment freedoms, and and other organizations will use those First Amendment freedoms in the way that they choose. We can't control what they say. For me, personally, as one senator, I disagreed with the ad.

Q Okay.

Q Senator, Gary Harmon at the Sentinel. Sorry to turn you back to a parochial issue, but I wanted -- did notice that you had sent out a press release on the transportation bill, really and specifically to $300,000 for a new Colorado River park in Grand Junction. And I was wondering if you could expand on that a bit for me?

SEN. SALAZAR: We set aside dollars and it was not only the transportation bill, but also dealt with urban development -- housing and urban development. And when I, you know, for many years have been apart of the efforts on the Colorado River to make the Colorado River State Park a crown jewel for the state of Colorado and Mesa County and the Grand Junction community. I know that there are significant opportunities to build upon the legacies of people like Jim Robb in moving forward with the completion of some segments of that park. And my hope is that the additional $300,000 will help Colorado -- will help Grand Junction realize its vision for the Colorado River.

Q So you're thinking basically of the trail itself, the trail system, or is there a specific? You know, I was sort of confused by the new --

SEN. SALAZAR: Well, we're working with the city of Grand Junction --

Q Yeah, yeah.

SEN. SALAZAR: -- in terms of them identifying the specific areas where this money will be used for the enhancement of the Colorado River State Park.

Q All right, very good. Thank you, sir.

SEN. SALAZAR: I thank you all for being on the call. Let's have a great weekend.

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