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Indiana Lawmaker in Bid for GOP Post

An Indiana Republican lawmaker best known for his lead role in the congressional investigations of Bill Clinton is reaching out for Jewish support in his campaign to head the House International Relations Committee, arguing that he has proved he is “tough enough” to stand up for what he believes is right, regardless of the opposition.

During an interview at the Forward’s Manhattan offices this week, Rep. Dan Burton described himself as “tougher than nails” and laid out a hawkish agenda that includes using force, if necessary, to prevent Iran from going nuclear.

He also argued that Israel’s prime minister has hurt the wider American war against Islamic fundamentalists.

At 68, Burton is the second most senior Republican on the international relations committee, next to its retiring chairman, Republican Rep. Henry Hyde of Illinois. A 24-year veteran in the House representing a suburban Indianapolis district, Burton is widely thought to be facing stiff competition from Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen of Florida for the top GOP spot on the committee, and in recent days she has been mounting a public relations offensive.

Throughout an hour-long interview with Forward staffers, Burton continually circled back to his dislike of bullies — in the schoolyard or on the world stage — which he attributed to growing up with an abusive father.

“The bottom line is, if we show weakness and lack of determination in the Middle East, then Iran will take that as a sign we’re a paper tiger,” Burton said.

According to Burton, that was exactly the message that Tehran and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, took away from the conflict with Israel this past summer. The Indiana Republican criticized Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert for accepting a ceasefire before Hezbollah was defeated and for relying on a United Nations peacekeeping force to help prevent future attacks against Israel.

“I don’t think he did what should have been done,” Burton said, adding, “I think tragic mistakes were made when Hezbollah was able to walk away from that thing saying they fought Israel to a standstill.”

Though Burton described himself as a dedicated supporter of Israel and said that he liked Olmert, he argued that the prime minister’s handling of the war had hurt America’s efforts to pressure Iran to abandon its nuclear program.

In a similar vein, Burton described Ros-Lehtinen, chair of the subcommittee on the Middle East, as a “nice lady,” but added, “I don’t know how she’ll be in a hard spot.” When asked to respond, Ros-Lehtinen, a South Florida lawmaker who has strong ties to the pro-Israel lobby and is a loyal supporter of the Bush foreign policy, wrote in an e-mail to the Forward that “I don’t say anything negative about my worthy rivals for the chairmanship.”

Burton has displayed a willingness to butt heads with GOP congressional leaders and the White House. In his interview with the Forward, the congressman said that as the ranking Republican in a time of war, he would not openly criticize the president or the House leadership over foreign policy. But the congressman added that “behind the scenes” he would strongly voice any concerns about American policy.

Burton said that if the Democrats take control of the House and if Rep. Nancy Pelosi, a San Francisco-area Democrat, becomes the speaker, then the White House would not be able to count on support for an aggressive foreign policy. The Democrats, he said, “have a different view of foreign policy: They believe you can sit down and talk to these people and work things out.”

Burton said that Democrats were generally just as supportive of Israel as Republicans are, but he warned that their calls for a change of course in Iraq and a wider foreign policy agenda would end up hurting the Jewish state.

“This is an insidious war,” he said. America’s terrorist enemies “are like cockroaches. They come out of the woodwork.” Asked if he wanted to reconsider the comment, Burton replied, “No… I think they’re worse than cockroaches.”

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