WASHINGTON - Vice President Dick Cheney, often called upon to deliver the administration's toughest talk about the wars abroad, now says this about the threat of terrorists detonating a nuclear bomb in a U.S. city: "It's a very real threat ... something that we have to worry about and defeat every single day."
Cheney's warning about what he thinks is at stake for the United States if it withdraws from Iraq - delivered in a television interview Sunday and coupled with a speech in Chicago on Friday and a war statement that President Bush plans to make today - is part of an escalating chorus of pressure that the White House hopes to exert on Democrats to approve a new war-spending bill.
Vowing to veto any spending bill that includes a timeline for withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, the Bush administration believes it ultimately will win a "clean" bill - predicting that Democratic leaders will buckle after Bush vetoes their bill.
"I'm willing to bet" the Democrats eventually will concede, Cheney said on CBS News' "Face the Nation."
"If they don't have the votes to override the president's veto ... they will not leave the troops in the field without the resources they need to be able to carry out their mission," Cheney said. "There may be some people who are so irresponsible that they wouldn't support that, but I think the fact of the matter is that the majority of Democrats ... will in fact give us the bill that's absolutely essential."
Cheney, who accused Democratic leaders of reverting to an "early 1970s" sense of "abandonment and retreat" in his speech Friday to the Heritage Foundation in Chicago, said in his CBS interview that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has taken an "irresponsible" stance in insisting upon attaching an autumn 2008 timeline for withdrawal to the war spending bill.
"He's done a complete 180 from where he was, in five months," Cheney said of Reid. "He cannot make the basic fundamental decisions that have to be made, with respect to the nation's security, given everything that's at stake in the war on terror and what we're doing in Iraq and with 140,000 American troops in the field in Iraq, in combat, every day, and call that kind of rapid change in position anything other than
Reid rejected the criticism.
"Vice President Cheney has long since lost credibility, so it should be no surprise that he would spend time this morning continuing to mislead us about the war in Iraq," Reid said in a statement released Sunday. "The American people know that the height of irresponsibility is to put this country at risk by mismanaging a war from day one, drawing our troops further into a civil war.
"Democrats are determined to make sure the troops have the funds they need," Reid said, maintaining that a timeline for withdrawal would force the Iraqis to take responsibility for the fight.
But the administration's underlying argument for the combat in Iraq is that it is central to a global war against terrorism. Bush has repeatedly attempted to attach the Iraq conflict to a threat of terrorism at home.
"I have told the American people often it is best to defeat them there, so we don't have to face them here," Bush said this month.
It is an argument that Cheney made in the interview aired Sunday, a conversation between Cheney and host Bob Schieffer, who asked the vice president if he has changed in some fundamental way since taking office. What has happened, Cheney said, is "9/11."
Sept. 11, 2001, "did have, I think, a remarkable impact on the threat to the United States on what we were required to deal with as an administration," Cheney said.
"The fact is that the threat to the United States now of a 9/11 occurring with a group of terrorists armed not with airline tickets and box cutters, but with a nuclear weapon in the middle of one of our own cities is the greatest threat we face," he said. "It's a very real threat. It's something that we have to worry about and defeat every single day."
The administration has confronted questions about Bush's warnings about terrorists "following us home" if not defeated in Iraq, despite his assertion that tactics have made the nation safer. Asked about that, Bush downplayed a specific threat. "I'm not going to predict to you the methodology they'll use," Bush said. "Just you need to know they want to hit us again.
"We spend a lot of time trying to protect this country," he said. "But if they were ever to have safe haven, it would make the efforts much harder. That's my point. We cannot let them have safe haven again."
Iraq will become that haven, Cheney said in the interview aired Sunday, if the United States withdraws without leaving an Iraqi government capable of sustaining and defending itself.
"There's a fundamental debate going on here, in terms of whether or not our objective in Iraq is to withdraw, or whether our objective in Iraq is to complete the mission," Cheney said. "And I think a majority of Americans would prefer the latter, if we can get it done."
Pressed about the suicide bombing in the Green Zone last week and death tolls across Iraq, Cheney insisted that the U.S. is making progress there.
"Of course it's hard," he said. "But it's absolutely essential that we get it right. There's an awful lot riding on it, not only in Iraq, but in terms of the efforts we're making in that part of the world to deal with this global war on terror."