By Dana Milbank
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 17, 2005; Page A01
Two dozen members of the House Armed Services Committee had not yet had their turn to question Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld at yesterday's hearings when he decided he had had enough.
At 12:54, he announced that at 1 p.m. he would be taking a break and then going to another hearing in the Senate. "We're going to have to get out and get lunch and get over there," he said. When the questioning continued for four more minutes, Rumsfeld picked up his briefcase and began to pack up his papers.
The chairman, Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-Calif.), apologized to his colleagues for a rather "unusual" situation.
With the Bush administration asking Congress this month to write checks for half a trillion dollars for the Pentagon, you might think the secretary of defense would set an accommodating posture on Capitol Hill. But, to paraphrase Rumsfeld's remark in December about the Army, you go to budget hearings with the defense secretary you have, not the defense secretary you might want or wish to have at a later time. And Donald Rumsfeld doesn't do accommodating very well.
Asked about the number of insurgents in Iraq, Rumsfeld replied: "I am not going to give you a number."
Did he care to voice an opinion on efforts by U.S. pilots to seek damages from their imprisonment in Iraq? "I don't."
Could he comment on what basing agreements he might seek in Iraq? "I can't."
How about the widely publicized cuts to programs for veterans? "I'm not familiar with the cuts you're referring to."
How long will the war last? "There's never been a war that was predictable as to length, casualty or cost in the history of mankind."
Rumsfeld's blunt manner was seen as refreshing four years ago, but these are different times. A few prominent Republican legislators have called for Rumsfeld's resignation, over his resistance to increased troop strength in Iraq, his perceived disparagement of the armed forces in December and the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal. Yesterday, GOP lawmakers greeted him with doubts on a variety of matters including war spending, death payments and veterans' benefits.
Yet, for a man in need of friends on Capitol Hill, Rumsfeld was both bipartisan and bicameral in his gruff treatment of tough questioners. In the afternoon he appeared before the Senate Appropriations Committee with sharp words for Republicans and Democrats alike.
When Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) mentioned an estimate of the costs for increases in troops' death benefits and life insurance, Rumsfeld said: "I've never heard that number."
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) then complained about long-term Army expenses being included in an emergency spending package. Rumsfeld said the matter "really is beyond my pay grade." When Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) observed that there are few positions beyond Rumsfeld's pay grade, Rumsfeld retorted: "Senator, I thought Congress was Article 1 of the Constitution."
Rumsfeld and others in the Bush administration can afford to be cavalier with the minority Democrats. More surprising is the rough treatment some Republicans receive. Bush aides assume they can take GOP lawmakers' loyalty for granted, but they risk antagonizing people whose votes they need on crucial issues such as Social Security.
Asked by Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.) for his position on soldiers' death benefits, Rumsfeld replied: "As a presidential appointee, I tend to support the president."
Rumsfeld responded to Rep. J. Randy Forbes (R-Va.) as he often scolds journalists: "You had so many questions there. Now let me see if I can pull out another one." As the exchange with Forbes continued, Rumsfeld requested: "Could you speak up a little bit?"
Rep. Walter B. Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) pressed Rumsfeld on whether he had talked with an aide who was quoted last month as saying Congress had been too generous in expanding military retirement benefits. "No, I have not, nor have I seen the statement that you've quoted in the context that it might have been included," the defense secretary replied.
Rumsfeld seemed to be spoiling for a fight from the start, when in his opening statement he implicitly chided Congress for "an increasingly casual regard for the protection of classified documents and information."
When the ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Rep. Ike Skelton (Mo.), asked about the number of insurgents in Iraq, the secretary said, "I am not going to give you a number for it because it's not my business to do intelligent work." (He presumably meant to say "intelligence.") Ultimately, Rumsfeld admitted he had estimates at his fingertips. "I've got two in front of me," he said.
"Could you share those with us?" Skelton inquired.
Not just now, Rumsfeld said. "They're classified."
In Europe last week, Rumsfeld joked that he was no longer the "old Rumsfeld" who disdainfully referred to France and Germany as "Old Europe."
But Wednesday, he made it clear that the new Rumsfeld would not be a softy. When he scolded Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) by saying she incorrectly described his role, Tauscher inquired: "Is that old Rumsfeld talking to me now?"
"I think so," Rumsfeld said, smiling.
"I'd prefer new Rumsfeld," she requested.
"No, you don't," he said.