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Democrats seize on Walter Reed

Lawmakers see weapon against Bush war policies

Marine Aaron Schoenfeld of Navarre, Fla., attended a hearing on Capitol Hill yesterday about conditions at Walter Reed. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

WASHINGTON -- Democrats are using the uproar over Walter Reed Army Medical Center as their latest cudgel to batter President Bush for his Iraq war policies as the administration shows signs it fears political damage from the revelations.

Reports of patient neglect and shoddy outpatient rooms at the hospital have brought Army brass to Capitol Hill to explain and apologize. Bush's handling of the war has been widely unpopular with voters, and reports about Walter Reed come on the heels of his decision to send more troops to Iraq -- which has also met a negative response from the public.

Democrats are stepping up their anti war rhetoric and casting Walter Reed as the latest Bush administration failure in planning for the war and other contingencies.

"This is the Katrina of 2007," said Senator Chuck Schumer, a New York Democrat , comparing the hospital scandal to the 2005 hurricane that left Gulf Coast residents stranded for days without federal assistance.

For its part, the Bush administration has moved quickly to try to contain the political damage. Defense Secretary Robert Gates forced Army Secretary Francis Harvey to resign last Friday, and Major General George W. Weightman, who was in charge of Walter Reed since August 2006, was ousted from his post a day earlier.

The rapid removal of the two officials was followed by a promise by the president and Vice President Dick Cheney that the problems would be fixed, as well as the creation of high-profile panels to unearth gaps in the system.

In a speech at the American Legion yesterday, Bush announced that he had asked Bob Dole, a Kansas Republican and former Senate majority leader , and Donna Shalala, a Democrat and former Health and Human Services secretary, to lead a bipartisan probe into the mistreatment of wounded troops.

Bush also directed Veterans Affairs Secretary Jim Nicholson to set up a task force of officials from various agencies to identify problems in treating wounded troops. To underscore the message that he cares about the troops, Bush referred to the group as a task force on "returning global war on terror heroes."

"We have a moral obligation to provide the best possible care and treatment to the men and women who served our country," Bush said. "They deserve it and they're going to get it."

Bush administration officials also headed to Capitol Hill yesterday and apologized, one by one saying they were at fault for not delving deeper into reports of staffing problems and a maintenance backlog at Walter Reed.

"I'm deeply chagrined by the events that bring us to this hearing," said David Chu, the Pentagon's personnel chief.

A White House statement released yesterday stated the president's 2008 request for $38.7 billion for military health care was double what it was when he took office.

The rhetoric failed to placate Democrats, who said the Walter Reed problems were shining a spotlight on the administration's failed war policies.

"There is a pattern here that we're just not focused on what needs to be done to help these young men and women," said Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat and a 2008 presidential contender.

Senator Edward Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat , said the Bush administration failed to adequately plan for the lengthy and bloody war.

"And now they're failing those who have sacrificed so much," Kennedy said.

Focusing the Iraq debate on the treatment of troops could help protect Democrats from GOP charges that proposals by some Democratic lawmakers to cut money for the war would hurt troops in the war zone. The Walter Reed case is also helping Democrats by providing a distraction -- if only for now -- from the party's internal disagreements over how and when to force the president's hand.

Looking to insulate themselves from any fallout, congressional Republicans have quickly jumped on board with Democrats in denouncing the mistreatment of wounded troops and hurling tough questions at Pentagon officials.

"I am dismayed this ever occurred," said Senator John McCain, an Arizona Republican and top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, who was captured and wounded during the Vietnam War.