The chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, is engaged in two high-profile battles.
He is leader of the opposition to President Bush's handling of the Iraq war. And he is a very public spokesman for Michigan's efforts to end New Hampshire's long-standing status as the site of the nation's first presidential primary.
Efforts to correct what he sees as flaws in handling of the Iraq war and what he calls New Hampshire's "cockamamie" lock on the presidential primary schedule dominated Levin's meeting with reporters at a Monitor-sponsored breakfast Wednesday.
Senator Levin says he has disagreed with almost every aspect of the Bush administration's policy in Iraq since the war began. But, as he noted Wednesday, he and like-minded colleagues are "still working on a formula that can get us to 60" – the number of votes needed to cut off a Senate filibuster and enact legislation that could change US policy in Iraq.
Levin said he sees an opening in Mr. Bush's request Monday for an additional $46 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The funding request would bring total expected spending for the 2008 fiscal year to $196.4 billion. Rather than granting the full year's money, Congress could provide the money in several segments, Levin said.
"The best hope that we have, I believe, of forcing a change or putting more pressure on the president for change ... is if the next appropriation bill, which will be a supplemental appropriation bill, is time-limited, so that it would have to be renewed after, let's say, May or June.... That would put some pressure on the president to have a timetable to move this process along with greater certainty, to end the open-endedness that is such a damaging feature of the president's policy."
Among Levin's objections to the war in Iraq is what he termed "an ethical issue" about the inequality of sacrifice in the conflict. "There are a lot of reasons this war is a mistake. One of them is we didn't pay for it," he added, "Who is paying for it? The very people who are fighting are paying for it. They are paying for it on the ground with their lives. They are going to pay for it financially when they get home. Shame on the administration for not funding the war properly, for talking about tax cuts in the middle of a war."
The Armed Services chairman also criticized the Bush administration's handling of relations with Iran. The president warned at a press conference last week that Iran would be increasing the risk of "World War III" if it acquired nuclear weapons. Vice President Cheney said Sunday that if Iran stays on its current course of seeking nuclear capability, "the international community is prepared to impose serious consequences."
Levin said, "I think we ought to keep an option on the table if they become nuclear, if they become a threat with a nuclear weapon. I would keep that option on the table. I just wouldn't talk about it. I wouldn't harp on it all the time, because it plays right into the hands of the extremists in Iran to talk about Iran as an evil empire, to talk about ... what we would do if they do certain things. This certainty element was added by the vice president the other day. I think it just hands a weapon to our enemies. Maybe the president feels better using evil-empire language. But I tell you, it strengthens the very people who endanger the world."
Despite his objections to administration policy, Levin complimented the changes made by Defense Secretary Robert Gates since he replaced Donald Rumsfeld.
"There has been a dramatic change, I think, in terms of relationship with the Hill," Levin said. "There are two features that are important. One, [Gates] is far more open-minded. He is far more willing to listen to other ideas. He welcomes other ideas, he solicits ideas.... Number two, he reaches out to people. He initiates contacts.... This is not something which is just sort of personal, body language and tone; this is substance. You can read it in statement after statement."
Levin is a vocal proponent of not allowing New Hampshire to dominate presidential primaries, and candidate attention, by always going first. Michigan's primary is currently slated for Jan. 15, 2008. New Hampshire's secretary of state, Bill Gardner, has said New Hampshire would go no later than Jan. 8. But Gardner has not set a date for his state's contest, seeking to maintain the Granite State's first-in-the-nation primary status.
One possibility would be for Michigan to hold its primary contest on the same day as New Hampshire, Levin said. When asked by reporters what his efforts on the primary issue had accomplished, he said, " So far, we have raised the consciousness of the power of New Hampshire.... There is a growing desire for change and a disgust with the current system. You can't change this system unless there is a growing desire for change and disgust with this system. You can't change it any other way because New Hampshire has this hammerlock, folks.... They have a hammerlock on the system and the question is whether you try to change it or not. We decided we are going to try to change it. We are going to pay a price. We know that."
Elected to the Senate in 1978, Levin is skilled in looking out for his state's interests. He is currently pushing to change a Senate energy bill that would impose a combined corporate average fuel economy (CAFE) standard of 35 miles per gallon in 2002.
At the breakfast, Levin said the proposed standards "are unrealistic, impractical." He added, "I am all for CAFE increases that are realistic and achievable. I prefer, frankly, instead of having CAFE increases, that we focus on the leap-ahead technologies ... instead of these incremental annual changes, which use up a tremendous amount of resources and make it less likely that we are going to [move] into the advanced hybrids, into the electrics, and into the fuel cells and the advanced diesels as quickly as we should."