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Press Conference with House Speaker Pelosi (D-CA); Rep. Skelton (D-MO; Rep. Berman (D-CA); Rep. Emanuel (D-IL)


Location: Washington, DC

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SPEAKER PELOSI: Good morning. As a departure from our usual practice at the speaker's weekly meeting with the press, I have two special guests with us today: Chairman Ike Skelton, the chair of the Armed Services Committee, and Howard Berman, the chair of the Foreign Affairs Committee. Also joining us is the chair of the Democratic Caucus, Rahm Emanuel.

These leaders will comment on the Iraq war's impact on our ability to fight the war on terrorism in Afghanistan, our military's capability to protect America's interests wherever they are threatened, our reputation in the world to -- to make and keep the peace, and on our economy. Their comments come in advance of next week's congressional testimony from General Petraeus and from Ambassador Crocker on the situation in Iraq.

When we are -- as we lead up to hearings, it is important to keep in mind the recent testimony of the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Mullen. When he was asked, "What are the main things the military can't do because of high force levels in Iraq?" He responded, "Well, what immediately comes to mind is additional forces for Afghanistan. And I've said, Afghanistan is an economy-of-force campaign. And there are force requirements there aren't currently -- that we can't currently meet. So having forces in Iraq -- at the level that they are at -- doesn't allow us to fill the need that we have in Afghanistan."

In terms of our capability -- our military capability -- and the impact of the war in Iraq, Admiral Mullen said, "So, should we be in the position where more troops are removed from Iraq, the possibility of sending additional troops" -- again, into Afghanistan, where we need them, clearly -- "certainly, it's a possibility. But it's really going to be based on the availability of troops. We don't have troops -- particularly in brigade combat team size -- sitting on the shelf, ready to go." Mr. Skelton will address that further.

We also cannot lose sight of the -- the Iraq war's impact on America's economy, which is another source of strength of our country. This president has taken us into a war that is taking us deeply into debt that can take us into recession. Chairman Bernanke testified yesterday that recession is possible, even by his terms.

As Nobel Prize-winning laureate Joseph Stiglitz has said, "The Iraq adventure has seriously weakened the U.S. economy, whose roles go far beyond the loose mortgage lending. You can't spend $3 trillion," he said, "on a failed war and not feel the pain at home."

Americans are most certainly feeling the economic pain as they struggle to keep up with rising costs of health care, education, gasoline and groceries. More troubling economic news arrives nearly every day. Consumer prices for staples such as milk, bread and eggs rose by the largest amount in 17 years.

Think of this: our troops, our military units in Iraq, are paying about $3.25 a gallon of gas, approximately what we pay in the U.S. -- that's our military units in Iraq -- while Iraqis are paying $1.36 a gallon for gas at the pump. This is a raw deal for America's taxpayers, and it's really hard to explain.

In addition to that, think of this: the Iraqis have a multibillion-dollar surplus. We have a several hundred billion dollar deficit, and yet we are paying for the reconstruction of Iraq. They are not. And we are not meeting our infrastructure needs here in America. We have spent more than $45 billion on the reconstruction projects in Iraq.

All of this adds up to the American dream possibly slipping away from many families. Some have lost their jobs. Some are losing their homes. Some are not, but all are facing the rising cost and have to make some very careful decisions about how they maintain standard of living, which is slipping from many Americans.

It's clearly that to have a new direction in America, we need a new direction in Iraq.

With that, I am very pleased to yield to the distinguished chairman of the Armed Services Committee, champion for America's men and women in uniform, expert on the military readiness of our troops here to all of us who care about national security, Chairman Ike Skelton.

REP. SKELTON: Madame Speaker, thank you very much. I appreciate this opportunity.

As we prepare for the hearing next week with the general and the ambassador, I think it's important to point out how proud we all are -- how proud I am -- of those who serve in uniform, wherever they may be -- not limited to Iraq, but whether it be Afghanistan, Kosovo, Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, or wherever they are. I'm proud of them. They're magnificent. We should always keep that in mind. They are superb in the contribution they will make not just today, but in the decades ahead. It will be monumental what they do for our country.

I have two thoughts that keep me awake at night. The first is the lack of readiness of our United States ground forces. This is public record, testimony, not just from General Cody this last few days, but over a period of time. And of course the briefings and the discussions and the observations that we've made wherever we are visiting with our troops and our forces, it is apparent that the stretch and strain is like never before.

I hope we don't get to the point where "Shy" Meyer got to during his time as chief of staff of the Army when he spoke about the "hollow Army" of his day. I'm terribly worried about this. And the Iraq war is the major strain thereon, with the 158,000 troops there as we speak.

The second is Afghanistan. We forgot that's where the attack originated on September the 11th. Thousands of Americans died as a result of the efforts from the al Qaeda, the terrorists in the Afghanistan and, of course, the Pakistan area. It should be our number one priority, and sadly, it's not.

Admiral Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs, recently said in prepared testimony, "In my judgment, the most likely near-term attack on the United States will come from al Qaeda by way of these safe havens" -- meaning Afghanistan and Pakistan. We must reverse the priorities as to where America's national security interests are.

Now, regarding the upcoming hearing, we of course will brag on the troops as well as the leadership that General Petraeus has given. But it's the Iraqis that are letting themselves down. They have had, as a result of this so-called surge, space within which to get their political act together for reconciliation and the various laws that should have been passed and have not. Three of the required benchmarks established by the Iraqi government and -- by the way, adopted by the president on January 7th in -- a year ago as the benchmarks regarding success -- three of the 18 have been met, and how disappointing that is.

x x is.

So what do we do? Our young people are out there trying to glue this together militarily and with some success. Bless their heart. But the Iraqis are not stepping up to the plate as they should.

And Americans should understand that it's theirs to win or lose. And so far, only the Americans and the coalition forces that are helping us are doing their job sufficiently. I'm very disappointed in the Iraqi government. We will talk about that, I know, extensively I during the hearing.

SPEAKER PELOSI: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Our brand new chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Berman. Congratulations on your first piece of legislation yesterday. Strong bipartisan support -- (off mike).

REP. BERMAN: Well, thank you very much, Madame Speaker. Brand new after being here 26 years, right? (Laughter.)

One issue about these hearings, there are broad issues about costs, readiness, the role in Afghanistan, that these are not the two right witnesses to have a response. There is a broader question of policy and judgment that other people in the administration should be called on to answer. Speaker Pelosi quoted one of those people in her opening comments.

But on the subject of those hearings, I'm hoping we will focus on the situation we face right now. Last year -- and I was very happy about this -- we saw a meaningful reduction in violence, and that presented an opportunity to build a -- build up national reconciliation that was the underlying premise of the surge. It seems that the Iraqis have largely frittered it away.

The Iraqi parliament has passed some legislation in recent weeks, notably a de-Ba'athification law and provincial powers law. But according to many experts, these laws are ambiguous, will result in -- and it's very unclear whether they will ever be implemented. There's a great deal of reason for skepticism about their implementation. It's unclear whether the de-Ba'athification law passed two months ago and not yet implemented will result in more or fewer former Ba'athists serving in the government. Experts have told a number of us -- all we can say is the Iraqis have passed some laws whose titles correspond to some of the benchmarks, but there's virtually no content to these laws.

The purpose of the surge was to create political space for Iraqis to make meaningful strides towards national reconciliation. But sectarianism, sadly, remains the dominant force in Iraq, and the sacrifices involved in getting us to this point have -- don't seem to have put us much closer to the goal. These are the questions we want Ambassador Crocker and General Petraeus to address.

And just one closing personal thought. One thing that does seem clear is that strategically, apart from all of the other considerations of casualties and costs and Afghanistan, the most disturbing aspect of the war is the unarguable strengthening of Iran, the most dangerous state in the Middle East. And even Iran's role in the recent incidents down in Basra and the role they played in dealing with the inadequacy of the government's own campaign down there I think is something we want to explore. And so these are the kinds of issues and many others we'll be addressing in those hearings on Thursday afternoon.

SPEAKER PELOSI: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Mr. Chairman.

REP. EMANUEL: As my colleagues mentioned, there is a series of costs associated with this war. One is the cost to our readiness of our troops that we've heard and a number of you have reported on. That is quite serious, both around the country, but also the new recruits and the strain that it's put on our families and our capability of meeting other security concerns around the country, which is another -- around the world, rather -- which is another cost associated with this war, which these hearings will have to delve into, which is now not only in Afghanistan but in the Korean Peninsula. There is a cost that Iraq is basically draining America's security, its armed forces and also, as the speaker said earlier, our economy.

You know, in every war, the -- presidents in the past have built and strengthened America at home. Before we even talked about the Marshall Plan, Roosevelt launched the GI Bill of Rights here at home to make sure that America was strong. While we were talking about helping Korea, President Eisenhower proposed the interstate highway system to strengthen America here at home. At the height of the Cold War, President Kennedy launched a mission to put a man on the moon.

Yet look at what President Bush has done. This is the president of the United States that, while he has expanded hospitals in Iraq -- 20 hospitals in Iraq, 80 new clinics -- he's vetoed a children's health care bill for 10 million children, and his own budget proposes $178 billion cuts in Medicare and Medicaid. While we are building 6,700 schools in Iraq and training 60,000 teachers in Iraq, the president's budget here at home cuts funding for education and teacher training programs and reading programs, and in fact does not fully fund the Leave No Child Behind program.

This is the first president in history in the middle of a war has asked the United States to sacrifice more for its own economic good and its own strength here at home, and that has not been the tradition or the practice in the past.

And as the speaker noted, Iraq is running a surplus. They have not invested, as they said they would do, in their own reconstruction. We have put $45 billion of taxpayer money into Iraq's reconstruction while our education, our health care, and our physical infrastructure and our environment are all running huge deficits as it relates to the obligations and needs that America has here at home.

So across the waterfront -- whether it is our national security, our Armed Forces or our economy -- there are costs associated with this war that are having a debilitating effect on America to compete, either in the arena of national security or economically. And part of the questions and part of the forum next week will not be just to look at Iraq, but the costs associated with Iraq to all of our other obligations around the country here and then also around the world. Thank you.

SPEAKER PELOSI: Thank you, Mr. Chairman.

Be pleased to take any questions on this subject while our chairmen are here.

Q Senator Ben Nelson has proposed converting this reconstruction grants into loans so that Iraq would have to repay them. Would you and the chairmen be interested in that?

SPEAKER PELOSI: I haven't seen the senator's proposal, but when we do, we'll let you know. Okay? That was a subject at the beginning of the going into the war in Iraq, was turn it into loans right from the start. So it's revisiting a question that we have discussed before.

Yes, ma'am.

Q Can any of you speak to what you'd like to see in the supplemental that is coming up and whether or not withdrawal language will be included in it?

SPEAKER PELOSI: We're not talking about the supplemental now. We -- probably, as Mr. Hoyer, our leader -- floor leader, has said -- the majority leader has said, it will probably come up in May. We'll be working on that in the weeks ahead. Right now, our focus is on this testimony next week and what that tells us about what should be in that supplemental.

REP. EMANUEL: Madame Speaker, can I add just one thing to this first question?


REP. EMANUEL: I do want to note -- I mean, Howard said this also -- is -- we both think the same thing. As you said, talking about loans, this was -- I don't think anybody should lose sight this war was supposed to pay for itself and Iraq's oil revenue was going to pay for reconstruction. So before we get to talking about whether it's a grant or a loan, remember the first pledge that they made. It was clear this was not supposed to be an expensive war. It was going to be a short war. And more importantly, Iraq's oil revenue was going to pay for its own reconstruction.

SPEAKER PELOSI: And the statement made at the time was that the war would probably cost about $50 billion, which could easily be paid off by oil revenue -- the Iraqi oil revenues and soon. Now we're in to the tune of trillions and they haven't paid for anything. They take and they sell about 200 -- about 2 million barrels of oil a day. You know what the cost of oil is. They take in around $200 million a day in Iraq, and we spend over $300 million a day in Iraq, and we get no offset from their money.

Q Madame Speaker, when you say you just want to focus on the testimony. What is it you expect to hear from General Petraeus? Is there anything that he can say to appease you? What do you -- how do you preview that?


REP. SKELTON: Well, we can probably collectively write his testimony, because it's been reported.

Our military has done a good job. And I think there are three things that have been militarily helpful.

The first is the leadership coming from the top. And I want to say, General Petraeus and his entire staff are first class.

Second are the young men and young women in uniform. So many of them have been there before two, three, four times, and they know about guerrilla warfare and fighting this type of conflict, and they're getting good at it.

Number three is the fact that you've had a turn of the sheiks in the Anbar province, which has been helpful and decreased the violence there. They have come over to be of help to us.

And I think those three factors militarily bode well for us. But so what?

The Iraqi government is sitting on its hands and has not done what it should have done and had the opportunity to do, and that really bothers me and should bother every American. I'm not sure what type of incentive it would take to cause them to do their job. We made it possible. And yet they're not living up to what they're supposed to do.

SPEAKER PELOSI: What I hope we don't hear from General Petraeus next week is any glorification of what has just happened in Basra -- any presentation that says that the Iraqi forces went in there, did the job, violence is diminished, mission accomplished -- because the fact is there are many questions that arise in relation to Basra.

First of all, the word is that they told us 48 hours in advance only about the engagement. Why didn't we know? Don't we have an intelligence operation in Iraq? So I don't know what's worse, they only gave us 24 hours' notice or we didn't know in the first place.

Second of all, they weren't winning this engagement on their own. It wasn't until the U.S. came in to help that the resolution came about.

Third of all, the diminution of violence in Iraq is in the hands of others. It is beyond our control. Al-Sadr established the terms under which he would freeze the violence from his side, terms probably dictated from Iran, and accepted -- (snaps fingers) -- like that by the al-Maliki government.

So we have to know the real ground truth of what is happening there, not put a shine on events because of the resolution that looks less violent when it has in fact been dictated by someone, al-Sadr, who can grant or withhold that call for violence or not.

Any other --


The speaker mentioned Iran's participation in the Basra area. Iran is the bull in the China shop in all of this. And they seem to have links to all of the Shi'ite groups, whether they be political or whether they be military. And it's rather ironic that Iraq, the mortal enemy of Iran, now has at least in part ties to that country.

REP. EMANUEL: Let me just -- I want to finish one comment. I'll be real quick.

Part of the testimony and part of what we were saying here today -- and this goes to the heart of the question -- is that General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker can talk about Iraq, but there's an obligation in that hearing and beyond that hearing. I know Ike is having one at 1 o'clock that same day. What has happened to our troops? What is happening in the Korean Peninsula as it relates to what is becoming increasingly as North Korea's threatening South Korea? Are we ready? Do we have everything we need for that?

Ike opens up, I think, almost at every caucus he speaks that -- I might get this wrong -- that of the last 14 engagements, I think it was what, 12 we didn't know or prepare for. So the question is, he -- the general and ambassador will talk about Iraq. You have to raise your sights up, take the blinders off and then say, what is the whole waterfront of issues associated with the cost associated with Iraq, both to the military, our national security and our ability to meet other threatening hot spots?

And I do think one of the other hot spots is also what is happening here at home economically. There are costs associated with this war that won't just be answered by one chart on this -- what happened to the level of violence in Iraq. They go way beyond that. And I hope that -- and you guys have done this in the past, as we get to this hearing, we will not narrow and just drill down to the violence level and the chart, what that shows, but what else is not being met, and are we ready to meet what we see on the horizon as it relates to our national security?

REP. SKELTON: Let me add to that -- our job under the Constitution is to raise and maintain the military of the United States. The national security is in our hands.


REP. SKELTON: And it is -- in the hands of Congress. And it's a broad area, and not limited, of course, to Iraq. I have pointed out, in the last 31 years, there have been 12 military engagements in which our forces have been part of -- four of which have been major in size, Panama, Desert Storm and the two of which we are involved in right now -- none of which were predictable ahead. And consequently, you don't know what's around the corner.

That's the problem of readiness. That's what concerns me.

REP. BERMAN: Could I just, since everybody -- (laughter).

SPEAKER PELOSI: (Laughs.) Certainly, Mr. Chairman.

REP. BERMAN: The one thing I know is the speaker, all of us, we want what is going on there to work. We want the violence to be reduced. We want the political reconciliation to take place. We want a stability. We want the defeat of extremist forces on all sides. Those are things we hope for. But we have to also deal with what the reality is and ask the tough questions.

Two and a half years ago, one of the Iraqi leaders came to my office and said, "This is what it's all going to be based on, and I believe it's going to happen soon. People of goodwill in the middle, moderate Shi'ites, moderate Sunnis, are going to come together in the middle to form an alliance on behalf of a united Iraq against the extremist forces, whether they're al Qaeda insurgents, former Ba'athist insurgents or Shi'ite militias."

That was two and a half years ago. I'd like Ambassador Crocker to tell me there's some evidence that I just have missed that that is what is going on now.

Q Chairman Skelton, just a moment ago you referenced the fact that most of us could probably predict what General Petraeus will say or much of what he will say, paramount of which is the idea of freezing the drawdown of U.S. forces. What are your thoughts about that?

REP. SKELTON: Well, needless to say, that concerns me a great deal. It impacts upon exactly what I was talking about, the readiness of our troops. You're wearing them out. The strain is heavy. It's not heavy just on those in uniform, but as well as their families. Good people. And we see young captains leaving at a disproportionate rate, people who, hopefully, in the days and years ahead would be colonels and maybe even generals; that we're losing that talent because of the strain on them as well as on their families.

You're going to have to have a reduction. And of course, what we've been talking about, more attention to Afghanistan, that's going to have to come to pass that that's going to be a solid outcome. It just has to.

Q To follow up on that, Chairman Skelton, what is the likelihood do you think that troop deployments can shrink from 15 months to 12 months if there is that --

REP. SKELTON: It's going to have to -- it's going to have happen. You're wearing them out. It's just going to have to happen.

Q Do you think it can happen if there is the pause in troop withdrawals? Or do you think that would keep those --

REP. SKELTON: Well, it would be part of it, I would hope. I would hope it would all work together. But you're wearing them out.

Q So if he says the troop surge is working and we need to stay as long as it takes, is that going to push all of your buttons? (Laughter.) As it were.

REP. SKELTON: Well, we really have to look at the overall national security situation. I can't stress again the tough situation we are in readiness wise across the board. And I'm not just talking about Afghanistan; I'm talking about wherever our interests may be. We have troops all over the world, and they're good. They're professional. I'm proud of them. But you can only stretch a military so far. And I'm fearful that the Iraqi conflict is draining them far beyond where they should be.

REP. EMANUEL: Can I jump in? One thing -- every event in Iraq cannot be a justification for the policy of more troops, more time and more money. Violence goes down; we need more troops, more time, more money. Violence goes up; we need more troops, more time, more money. Not every event in Iraq can be a -- can get us into a position which we find ourselves in, which is a policy cul de sac, and we just keep going around and around.

Q Madam Speaker, at the last set of hearings that began with an ad that some people considered inflammatory, that sort of took over the dialogue at the hearing and gave Republicans a rallying point -- have you been in contact with advocacy groups about how they should handle this set of hearings and urge them not to do anything?

SPEAKER PELOSI: No. I haven't, but --

Q Would you prefer that they not engage in that kind of activity?

SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, I don't deter anyone's right to speak out. I'm a big proponent of the First Amendment. But I would hope that as we set the stage for General Petraeus' appearance before the committee, it is by shining a bright light of truth and a mirror on what he has to say and see how that is consistent with our greater national security goals.

As we've said before, and I'll end by saying, how is this war in Iraq helping us fight the war on terrorism, the real war on terrorism in Afghanistan? General Mullen says we don't have enough troops to go there with the commitment in Iraq.

How is this impacting our readiness, our capability to protect the American people wherever our interests are threatened? Admiral Mullen says we don't have any troops on the shelf to meet those needs.

How is this affecting our economy, another part of our strength? We have heard over and over again the unfairness of the opportunity costs of this war, which is driving us into debt, which is driving us into recession. And the American people are paying the costs.

I think that the chairman will very well deal with asking the necessary questions at hearing. I look forward to going beyond that. Because as Chairman Berman has said, we have a general and we have an ambassador, two employees of the President of the United States, coming in to present their case.

Some of these policy issues have to be asked at another level. I think it would be a good idea. Well, I'll talk about that good idea another time. (Laughter.)

Right now we are going to Statuary Hall where, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the assassination of Reverend Martin Luther King, we will have an observance there. It's just interesting. As the chairman was speaking, I was thinking of my recent trip to India. You probably read about that.

When Martin Luther King went to India to learn about the principles of nonviolence, the Gandhian principles of nonviolence, what emerged -- I read that the same words in Sanskrit, the word for nonviolence in Sanskrit is truth insistence: truth insistence, insistence on the truth. And that is what Reverend Martin Luther King did in the nonviolent civil disobedience in the United States that changed our country for the better. Truth insistence in this war in Iraq is also necessary to end the violence.

Thank you all very much.

(Cross talk.)

Q Can you address President Bush sending up the Colombia trade bill next week, and how you plan on dealing with that?

SPEAKER PELOSI: I don't know that that will be the case. We'll see if it is.

(Cross talk.)

SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, I don't know that that -- I have not been informed by the administration.

Thank you, Chairman.

I have not been informed by the administration that they will be sending up their legislation next week.

I don't recommend it.

Q Madame Speaker, just a quick question on your take on the Senate housing deal. There are some critics out there who think it's going to do more for businesses than consumers or homeowners who are facing foreclosure. Do you have those concerns?

SPEAKER PELOSI: I think the value of what the Senate did is they came together in a bipartisan way and gave a signal that Congress is prepared to act. I think there are some improvements that certainly need to be made. Chairman Frank's legislation that we will be taking up soon will represent an improvement. Then when we go to conference, hopefully the balance will swing to be more in favor of the families who are in danger of losing their homes.

Q (Off mike) -- by Mr. Durbin?

SPEAKER PELOSI: Yes, but I don't know that it has much chance. But I think that the bankruptcy provision goes right to the heart of helping people in danger of losing their homes.

Q (Off mike) -- get it through the House?

SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, let's see if they can get it through the Senate, because that's where the legislative process is right now.

Q Madame Speaker?


Q This Al Wynn matter is getting worse and worse. The governor of Maryland, who only has a couple of days before the session ends, is having to do emergency legislation to try to reduce two elections down to one to save a million. It's going to cost a million dollars for a special election out there all because Al Wynn will not finish out his term. Surely you must have an opinion on this.

SPEAKER PELOSI: Well, you know, there's been recent resignations. The United States Senator from Mississippi, of course, the governor has the power to appoint, and then the election will take place. But just because the power to appoint is there doesn't mean that someone's options should be limited.

I don't know what the timetable is for Mr. Wynn. I have been informed that he is complying with all of the rules of the ethics committee in relation to --

Q But you run for a two-year term.

SPEAKER PELOSI: Hmm? I'm sorry?

Q You run for a two-year term. It's been in the Constitution for --

SPEAKER PELOSI: Mr. Baker -- I think we had two special elections in -- when the speaker of the House resigned, we had a special election in Illinois. Two resignations; one of our members became a governor in Louisiana, another resigned to lead up the hedge fund association in Louisiana. I think that people are living their lives, and they are leaving. And if you are subjecting all of these to a scrutiny because of the cost to the electorate in their states, perhaps you could look at all of those.

I don't know the extent of Mr. Wynn's plans, but I know I hope that he will -- I'm certain he will be responsible and that his actions will not be much different from others who have chosen to make their life choice to leave the Congress.

And by the way, may I just say -- you're not asking me, but I'm telling you. I want to be really clear about this. (Laughter.) It will do great harm to the Democratic Party if it is perceived that the superdelegates overturn the will of the people. That is consistent with a delegate voting his or her conscience. I have been against ex officio voting in the party in my whole life. When I was chair of the California Democratic Party, we turned the California party into a 90 percent appointed by the elected officials party to a 90 percent elected party. That's the democratic way, and that is the way of the Democratic Party.

So I want to remove all doubt in anyone's mind -- why you would have them, I don't know. I think I've been very clear. I think there's an enormous price for the Democratic Party to pay for all those who worked hard in these campaigns. I said it when Senator Clinton was ahead. I said it when Senator Obama's away. The will of the people must be respected in this election.

I hope you will join us in the Rotunda as we celebrate the nonviolent life of Reverend Martin Luther King.

Thank you.

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