A leading war critic

Md.'s Hoyer evolves from backer to foe of Bush's handling of the conflict in Iraq

February 13, 2007|By Matthew Hay Brown | Matthew Hay Brown,Sun Reporter

WASHINGTON -- In 2002, Rep. Steny H. Hoyer voted against the majority of his fellow Democrats to give President Bush the authority to attack Iraq. Now the House majority leader, Hoyer is leading the charge against the president.

With House Democrats set to begin debate today on a measure challenging Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq, the 67-year-old congressman from Southern Maryland has become one of the party's most visible war critics. Witness the blistering speech he gave in Washington last month, when he said "colossal misjudgment" and "gross miscalculations" had led to "the most incompetent implementation of American foreign policy in my lifetime."

Had he known this was how the administration would prosecute the war, Hoyer told the audience at the Brookings Institution, he would not have voted to endorse it.

Such comments mark a left turn for a centrist politician who as recently as 15 months ago responded to calls by senior Democrats to begin pulling troops out of Iraq by warning against the consequences of a precipitous withdrawal.

Hoyer's evolution on Iraq reflects a larger trend in Congress, where members who voted to authorize Bush to use military force now are lining up against his plan to send 21,500 more combat troops. That trend itself follows a change of heart by the American public, a majority of which now says the United States should not have gone to war in the first place.

In Hoyer's case, the increasingly aggressive opposition also reflects his own changing role within the party. During the bitter post-election leadership battle last fall, when he faced a challenge for the No. 2 post in the House from war critic John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, some Murtha supporters called into question Hoyer's antiwar credentials.

Having won that fight, Hoyer now speaks for a majority that gained control of the House largely on frustration with the perceived lack of progress in Iraq.

"That caucus has become strongly antiwar," Larry J. Sabato, director of the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia, said of the House Democrats. "He's the majority leader. He's not going to be majority leader very long if he takes a position contrary to the majority of the caucus."

Indeed, Hoyer has made this week's vote a priority. Democrats have scheduled three days of debate, during which all 435 members of the House will have the opportunity to speak from the floor, with a vote expected on Friday.

Hoyer said yesterday that he expects strong bipartisan support for the measure, laying a foundation for later votes that could limit funding for new deployments.

"This is a first step, not a last step, nor the only step," he said. "Appropriations bills are being considered. Authorization bills are being considered. There will be action beyond the resolution."

That's just what antiwar activists want to hear. MoveOn.org once ran radio advertisements criticizing Hoyer as being too close to business interests. Now the liberal group is glad to have Hoyer's long experience as a legislative operator on its side.

"In the last couple of weeks, he's shown that he can be a great antiwar leader for the Democrats," said Tom Matzzie, Washington director for MoveOn.org. "The next six months is going to be a real trial for Democrats. Hoyer's skills inside the House will be a big asset."

They are skills on which the antiwar movement could not always count. Hoyer is alone among the current Democratic House leadership in having voted to authorize the use of force in Iraq. In November 2005, when then-Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi tapped Murtha to speak out against the war, Hoyer took the unusual step of releasing his statement urging caution.

After the Democrats regained control of Congress, Pelosi backed Murtha for majority leader. Murtha's supporters credited the former Marine's calls for redeployment with turning the electoral tide in their favor.

Hoyer's years of campaigning and fundraising for colleagues paid off: He trounced Murtha. But not before he had absorbed criticism for his perceived moderation on Iraq.

Hoyer, whose largely rural district is home to the Patuxent River Naval Air Station and the Naval Surface Warfare Center at Indian Head, downplays any disagreement among the party leadership. He points to his signature on letters sent by House and Senate Democratic leaders last year calling on Bush to change course in Iraq, and describes the party's consensus position.

"I don't think anybody is for what the Republicans characterize as an immediate withdrawal," he said. "That means, you know, within a week or a month or 60 days. We are for a phased withdrawal, consistent with the safety of our troops and the security of Iraq.

"Now what's that mean? That means we need to be getting out, but we don't need to be getting out tomorrow."

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