Bush faces pressure from Democrats

In Congress, party seeks to challenge president on Iraq

February 16, 2007|By Janet Hook | Janet Hook,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- Now comes the hard part.

Congressional Democrats quickly and easily unified behind passing a nonbinding resolution denouncing President Bush's plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq. But after the measure's expected approval in the House today, party leaders will confront more divisive questions -- how to force a determined president to back down and whether to push even harder for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq.

Senior House Democrats are crafting a strategy designed to block U.S. escalation in Iraq without exposing their party to charges that it is undermining the military. But such an effort is likely to spark conflict within the party.

Liberal antiwar advocates would rather set a firm target date for a complete troop pull-out. More moderate Democrats, especially those in Republican-leaning districts, are worried that direct steps to limit Bush's war powers are fraught with political peril.

In the Senate, meanwhile, a more immediate hurdle looms.

Facing procedural hurdles from Republicans, Democrats are still struggling to pass a nonbinding resolution that mirrors the House measure.Yesterday, Senate Democratic Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he would hold an unusual Saturday session to bring the issue to a head, although it remained unclear whether he had enough votes to break the deadlock that stalled action earlier this month.

Regardless of the outcome of the Senate tiff, Capitol Hill's focus in the weeks ahead will turn to Bush's request for additional funding for the Iraq war. As they consider it, Democrats will be exploring just how far they can go in challenging him.

As they plot their course, one thing is clear: Democratic leaders will be under intense pressure from the party's rank-and-file -- especially activists who will play a major role in choosing their 2008 presidential candidate -- to go beyond symbolic denunciations of Bush's policy.

"Congress has no choice but to do some binding action after the nonbinding resolution, or the antiwar community will go berserk if they are perceived as hesitating," said Tom Mattzie, Washington director of Moveon.org, the liberal online group.

Today's House vote will stand as Congress' first formal repudiation of Bush's Iraq policy, a rare wartime rebuke for a commander in chief. Support for the measure demonstrates that many Democratic lawmakers who just a year ago were wary of criticizing Bush over Iraq have been emboldened by the GOP's shellacking in the 2006 election.

Democratic leaders candidly acknowledge the limits of their power to change Bush's policy, noting their party's narrow majority in the Senate and Bush's veto power. But they say they are pushing to create a political climate that forces Bush to change his approach.

Bush has said the House resolution would have no effect on him, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi yesterday told reporters, "I don't know that the president can completely ignore it; this is the voice of the American people."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer, a New York Democrat, said he and other party leaders "are going to keep ratcheting up the pressure so that public opinion and congressional opinion is so strong that the president will have no choice but to change strategy."

But he added, "there is not just one vote at any one time that is going to be the magic pill that changes it."

As part of their efforts, Democrats and political activists are planning to ramp up pressure on Republicans as lawmakers return to their homes to meet with constituents during next week's recess on Capitol Hill.

"The message that keeps going out is: Stop the escalation; stop the war,"' Mattzie said.

Republicans are putting out a different message: That the nonbinding resolution denouncing Bush's troop buildup is a stalking horse for future efforts to roll back funding for the war.

Echoing comments by other GOP lawmakers throughout this week's House debate, Rep. Shelly Moore Capito, a West Virginia Republican said, "My opposition lies not in what [the nonbinding] resolution says, but in what I fear it is intended to do -- and that is to lay the foundation to begin cutting funding from our troops."

That line of attack is, in part, why many Democrats worry about the consequences of trying to block the troop increase by tying strings to the supplemental war appropriations bill Bush has requested. These Democrats warn that Republicans will accuse the party of undermining the military because it is difficult to isolate and block funding for the troop increase without affecting military personnel already deployed.

Janet Hook writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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