Thursday, September 27, 2007

Preaching to the Chorus

By Dana Milbank, The Washington Post

Thursday, September 27, 2007; A02

Democrats' anger has built for weeks over their failure to end the war in Iraq. When Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Peter Pace arrived on Capitol Hill yesterday, the lid came off.

Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Appropriations Committee, didn't just harangue the two men. He did so in triplicate.

"Funding for the war in Iraq will exceed 600 billion -- billion! billion! -- dollars!" the 89-year-old lawmaker bellowed, pointing his finger wildly while Gates picked at his cuticles.

"All of this for a war -- a war! a war! -- that General Petraeus, two weeks ago, could not say had made Americans safer!"

"A long-term presence could cost well in excess of 2 trillion -- 2 trillion! Yes, you heard me -- 2 trillion!"

Byrd's angry theatrics made for a performance reminiscent of Al Pacino in "Scent of a Woman." And Byrd did Pacino one better: He invited the audience in the room to join him in heckling the witnesses, creating a responsive Greek chorus.

Byrd: "Are we really seeking progress toward a stable, secure Iraq?"

Chorus: "No!"

Byrd: "Is our continuing occupation encouraging the Iraqi people to step up?"

Chorus: "No!"

Byrd: "Are Iraq's leaders doing the hard work necessary?"

Chorus: "No!"

Emboldened, two dozen hecklers in the audience from the antiwar group Code Pink continued to shout at the witnesses and wave signs for the better part of an hour. Finally, after Sen. Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) challenged Pace on his view that homosexuality is immoral, the hearing collapsed as the hecklers shouted down the nation's top military officer.

"This hearing is adjourned!" Byrd shouted, hammering his gavel violently. An aide whispered in Byrd's ear. "This hearing is suspended!" he corrected.

During the melee, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) turned with ferocity on Harkin for raising the subject. "You should be ashamed," Gregg said.

"I don't need any lectures from you!" Harkin answered.

When the proceedings resumed, minus two dozen pink-clad demonstrators, Sen. Barbara Mikulski (D-Md.) felt the need to "go on record with how disturbed I am about the conduct that occurred here." She added: "Such tension, such chaos, such disrespect."

Perhaps, but it capped something of a revival for Byrd. In April, he had identified himself as "Popeye the Sailor Man" and delivered a 15-minute discussion of his dog at a Senate hearing. In June, he had found it necessary to deliver a speech on the Senate floor objecting to reports that "I am at death's door."

But this week, Byrd impressed colleagues with a fervent antiwar speech on the Senate floor Monday. On Tuesday, senators past and present unveiled a portrait of Byrd and reminisced about his days as Senate majority leader.

Arriving for yesterday's hearing, Byrd found the Code Pink hecklers already verbally assaulting Pace and Gates -- "Used-car salesmen! Stop funding war crimes!" -- but he let them continue for a few minutes before employing his gavel. He then began his own heckling about the administration's $190 billion funding request for what he called "the nefarious, infernal war in Iraq."

"Thank you! Thank you!" the pink hecklers cried.

"I am disappointed," Byrd said as if the witnesses were children. "This committee will not -- N-O-T, not! -- rubber-stamp every request." Theatrically, he drew out his words: "Trillionnnn." "Breathing roommmm."

The triple assault continued: Costs "will ultimately be borne by whom? Whom? Whom?" he demanded. And: "Mark Twain -- Mark Twain! Mark Twain! -- once said, 'There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies and statistics.' " The chorus cheered him on with chants of "shame" and "woo hoo."

"This senator -- yes, this man from the hill country! -- believes that it is time for a thorough evaluation of the Bush war in Iraq," Byrd declared.

"Amen!" the chorus answered.

After some time, Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) tried to get Byrd's attention. "Our witnesses before this committee are entitled to be heard," he reminded the chairman.

"Let there be order," Byrd concurred. But there wasn't -- and he didn't seem to mind.

" 'Mission accomplished' has turned into a commitment to have our grandchildren patrolling Baghdad into the middle of this century!" the chairman chided.

The chorus laughed.

"Instead of a coalition of the willing, what we really have is a coalition of contractors!" he admonished.

"That's right!" the chorus agreed.

And so it continued until Harkin -- assisted by "boos" from the hecklers -- asked the soon-to-retire Pace about his "very hurtful" views on gays in the military. Pace repeated his view that homosexuality is "counter to God's law."

With that, the chorus erupted, shouting down Pace with a series of chants. Even Byrd decided he had "tolerated all I can stand" and ordered the room cleared.

"The Iraq people have a right to their home!" one of the hecklers shouted as police led her away.

"Senators," the chairman retorted, "have a right to have a hearing."

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