On a Deadly Day in Iraq, Republicans Step Up Debate Over Whether Rumsfeld Should Stay

By SHERYL GAY STOLBERG

New York Times

December 20, 2004

WASHINGTON, Dec. 19 - The continuing debate among Republicans over whether Donald H. Rumsfeld should remain as defense secretary grew more fractious on Sunday, as two prominent senators argued that removing Mr. Rumsfeld would disrupt the coming Iraqi elections, while a third, Senator Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, said he had "no confidence in Rumsfeld's leadership."

Talk of the defense secretary's future dominated the television interview programs on a day when car bombs killed more than 60 people in the Iraqi cities of Najaf and Karbala. The debate was caught up in fresh accusations by both Democrats and Republicans about the planning in the aftermath of the war.

"He should be held accountable, and he should stay in office," said Senator Richard G. Lugar, Republican of Indiana and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, speaking on the NBC News program "Meet the Press."

Mr. Hagel, speaking on the CBS News program "Face the Nation," joined Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona, in declaring his loss of confidence in the defense secretary, and said problems in Iraq were "all of the accumulation of bad judgment."

Meanwhile, the White House and Senator John W. Warner of Virginia, the influential chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, tried to dampen Republican criticism of the secretary.

"Secretary Rumsfeld is doing a spectacular job and the president has great confidence in him," the White House chief of staff, Andrew H. Card Jr., said on the ABC News program "This Week."

Mr. Warner said on "Meet the Press" that "we should not at this point in time entertain any idea of changing those responsibilities in the Pentagon." But he made clear that he was not so much interested in shoring up Mr. Rumsfeld as in backing President Bush, who has asked the defense secretary to stay.

"The president makes the choice," Mr. Warner said, "and we're going to back the president and support his choice and make it work."

Mr. Rumsfeld has long had strained relations with some Republicans on Capitol Hill, and controversy over his tenure has flared again with his recent remarks to a Tennessee national guardsman who raised questions about lack of protective armor for American forces in Iraq.

Over the weekend, Mr. Rumsfeld's critics gained some new ammunition with the disclosure that the defense secretary had not personally been signing condolence letters to the families of soldiers killed in Iraq.

In a statement first issued to the military newspaper Stars and Stripes, Mr. Rumsfeld said he would now begin signing the letters himself. A Defense Department official said Sunday that Mr. Rumsfeld had used an automated signing machine, a tool commonly used by public officials, but only to ensure that families received their letters quickly. But the outcry has fueled the complaints of those who say the blunt-talking defense secretary is insensitive to soldiers and their families.

"This secretary is very sensitive to the needs of the military," Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia, told CBS News in defending Mr. Rumsfeld. "He seems insensitive when he makes comments. And that seems to be what gets him in trouble."

The perception was reinforced by Mr. Rumsfeld's remarks to the Tennessee guardsman, Specialist Thomas Wilson, during a town hall-style meeting in Kuwait on Dec. 8 that was supposed to be a morale-building session.

When Specialist Wilson complained that soldiers had been scrounging through scrap piles for "hillbilly armor" to bolt to their trucks, the defense secretary replied, "You go to war with the Army you have, not the Army you might want or wish to have at a later time."

The comment prompted Mr. McCain, who is in line to succeed Mr. Warner as chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee in 2006, to say he had no confidence in the defense secretary. Last week, other Republicans, including Senators Susan Collins of Maine and Trent Lott of Mississippi, joined in.

By week's end, though, the Senate Republican leadership was orchestrating an effort to shore up the defense secretary. On Friday, the two top Republicans in the Senate, Bill Frist of Tennessee, the Republican leader, and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican whip, both issued strong statements praising Mr. Rumsfeld. "We shouldn't confuse style with substance," Dr. Frist said.

On Sunday, Democrats also seemed divided over Mr. Rumsfeld. Senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware, who are the senior Democrats on, respectively, the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations Committees, blamed the White House for problems in Iraq, saying they saw no need to remove the defense secretary if the president's policies remained the same.

"If I thought a change at the top of the Pentagon would change the policy of this administration, I'd be all for it," Mr. Levin said on "Meet the Press."

But Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a Democrat who serves on the Armed Services Committee, said Mr. Rumsfeld should go. He complained that the defense secretary's "management style is more corrosive than constructive," and said Mr. Rumsfeld's remarks to the guardsman were emblematic of his "disdainful, dismissive" style.