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Senate Democrats Force Closed Session


This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne.

The Senate today resumes debate over how to cut $39 billion in spending. Debate on the measure was interrupted yesterday when a partisan dispute over pre-Iraq War intelligence led to an unusual closed session. It was an effort by Democrats to return public attention to the indictment of a senior White House aide. Here's NPR congressional correspondent Brian Naylor.

BRIAN NAYLOR reporting:

The Senate closes its sessions rarely. The last time was during deliberations over the impeachment of President Clinton, but any senator can call a closed session, and that's just what Democratic leader Harry Reid did yesterday. The move came after a speech in which Reid denounced the Bush administration which he charged, quote, "manufactured and manipulated intelligence in order to sell the war in Iraq." Reid also criticized Republican congressional leaders for failing to carry out an investigation of the White House.

Senator HARRY REID (Democratic Minority Leader): I demand on behalf of the American people that we understand why these investigations aren't being conducted, and in accordance with Rule 21, I now move that the Senate go into closed sessions.

Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): Mr. President, I second the motion.

NAYLOR: An aide said Reid decided on the tactic Monday night. Republicans were caught flat-footed and were sputtering mad. Speaking to reporters outside the guarded Senate chamber, Majority Leader Bill Frist called it a stunt and a slap in the face to him and to the Senate as an institution. And he criticized Reid personally.

Senator BILL FRIST (Republican Majority Leader): This is deeply disappointing to Senator Reid, his approach. It means from now on, for the next year and a half, I can't trust Senator Reid. And that's hard. I'm going to do my best, though, at coping.

NAYLOR: For some two hours, senators could be seen through a glass door conferring in groups. The TV cameras were shut off and visitors were not permitted in the galleries. Even staff had to leave. Outside the chamber, Republican Senator Rick Santorum of Pennsylvania said the closed session was all about politics.

Senator RICK SANTORUM (Republican, Pennsylvania): This is purely political. This is settling an old political score. This is pre-2004 election politics that for some reason they can't move on.

NAYLOR: The tiff centered on the Senate's Select Intelligence Committee's investigation into pre-Iraq War intelligence. In the summer of 2004, the panel concluded the intelligence was flawed; Saddam Hussein had no weapons of mass destruction as the administration and others claimed. But there was supposed to be a phase two of the probe, looking into whether the Bush administration manipulated the intelligence and deliberately misled Congress and the American public. Democrats charged phase two had been stalled. Democrat Jay Rockefeller is the vice chairman of the intelligence panel.

Senator JAY ROCKEFELLER (Vice Chairman, Intelligence Committee): What it really comes down to, in my judgment, is if there is any subject or any matter which seems to get close to the doings of the administration, that being particularly the White House, then all of a sudden, an iron curtain comes down and we are no longer able to pursue that.

NAYLOR: Republicans responded they were going to resume the probe next week, and Democrats knew it. Intelligence Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas.

Senator PAT ROBERTS (Chairman, Intelligence Committee): Isn't it a little bit unusual that when our staff just yesterday informed their staff that it was the chairman's wishes that next week we would start--Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday--and we would finish phase two, that all of a sudden we would have a call for executive session to do their own investigation in regards to phase two?

NAYLOR: The result of the closed session: There will now be a bipartisan review of the investigation. Democratic Leader Reid declared victory.

Sen. REID: Today, the American people are going to see a little bit of light. On November 14th, we're going to have a phase-by-phase idea of how they're going to complete this, finally, finally.

NAYLOR: It's hard to say if the Democrats' surprise closed session worked. After accusing the Bush administration of trying to change the subject to bird flu and Samuel Alito's nomination to the Supreme Court, Democrats did manage to shift the focus back to the unpopular war with Iraq, if only until the next skirmish. Brian Naylor, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.
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