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Daschle stands by war comments

From Dana Bash
CNN Washington Bureau

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle on Friday stood by comments questioning the direction of the war on terrorism, saying Congress has the constitutional duty to raise such questions.

A day earlier, while speaking with reporters, the South Dakota Democrat issued one of the most critical assessments to date of the U.S. war effort from any senior Democratic official.

Daschle told reporters Thursday he believed the war has been successful to date, but he also said the war effort has been expanding "without clear direction." He added that, though he would not "second-guess what has been done to date ... the jury is still out on future success."

"Clearly, we've got to find Mohammed Omar, we've got to find Osama bin Laden, we've got to find other key leaders of the al Qaeda network or we will have failed," Daschle said.

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The majority leader's comments were quickly criticized by Republicans on Capitol Hill, who said his comments were divisive at a time when the country needs to be united. On Friday, Daschle expressed surprise a the strong GOP response.

"I think the Republicans reaction was nothing short of hysterical. I'm amused, frankly. I'd ask them to look at what I said, because I stand by what I said," Daschle said.

"Congress has a constitutional responsibility to ask questions. We are not a rubber stamp to the president or to anybody else. We must do what the Constitution and what our best judgment requires," he added.

Democrats have been reluctant to challenge the president, whose poll ratings are sky-high, on any aspect of the U.S. war on terrorism. After Daschle's comments Thursday, Republicans, led by Senate Minority Leader Trent Lott pounced.

"How dare Sen. Daschle criticize President Bush and our war on terrorism, especially when we have U.S. troops on the ground," Lott, R-Mississippi, said through his spokesman.

The Democratic leader, appearing baffled, said he spoke with Lott to ask what had offended him.

"I went line by line and asked him which part of those particular questions did he object to," Daschle said.

Lott told reporters on Friday that he was upset most by Daschle's assertion that the United States will have failed if it does not find bin Laden or Omar.

"This is not just about one or two people," Lott said, "not just about getting al Qaeda."

Lott's words Friday echoed those of President Bush, who addressed the issue during a visit to Des Moines, Iowa.

"I've said repeatedly -- and most Americans understand this, as well -- that our war against terror is far greater than one person," Bush said. "The vast majority of Americans are patient. I think [bin Laden] now understands that this patient and determined nation is going to hunt him down, that he can't hide long enough."

Some Democrats, particularly those with foreign policy expertise, have been frustrated that their party's leaders are holding back on what they see as legitimate criticism of the war.

But Daschle's concern with recent administration decisions to expand the war without consulting Congress also is shared by some Republicans.

Even as many in the GOP issued blistering statements of criticism against the Democratic leader, Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Nebraska, told CNN that Daschle raised appropriate questions.

"I think Sen. Daschle may have used a bit of a blunt object in some of his language, but the foundational part of his question was appropriate and I don't think there's any question that Sen. Daschle supports the president," Hagel said. "I think it is an issue where both Democrats and Republicans support this president in our efforts but at the same time we need to ask questions and bring some perspective and balance to it all."

Even Lott told reporters that, despite regular briefings from the president himself and others in the administration, he did not know about the decision to send U.S. troops to the former Soviet republic of Georgia or to Yemen.

Said Daschle, "I don't think in some cases we've been adequately consulted. That's a constant lament of members of Congress with any administration. I think that's critical, and if we don't think we're being adequately consulted I think we have to speak out."

But Daschle said he is sure Congress in the end will fully fund Bush's nearly $400 billion request for defense despite those frustrations.




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