Hill Democrats debate Iraq

Leaders struggle to find best way to express congressional disapproval

February 28, 2007|By Jill Zuckman and Aamer Madhani | Jill Zuckman and Aamer Madhani,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON -- By most measures, congressional Democrats should have the political wind at their backs on the Iraq war. They swept to power in November because of the public's dissatisfaction with the conflict, and poll numbers indicate that most Americans want to bring the troops home.

Instead, Democrats are struggling to find the best way to express congressional disapproval of the war and President Bush's troop buildup. They are wary of going too far and of not going far enough as they try to strike a balance that most Democrats, and perhaps some Republicans, can support.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, was unequivocal. "Let me be very clear: Congress will fund our troops," she said.

Democratic leaders fear that if they do not handle the situation deftly, Republicans will paint them as micromanaging the war and failing to support the troops. On the other hand, many of the voters and groups that helped the Democrats win in November could grow frustrated if the party does not take strong action to challenge Bush's Iraq initiatives.

"On some level, we won't be satisfied until the war is ended," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a group that is part of a broader coalition to end the war.

Congressional Republicans, meanwhile, are waiting to strike at whatever the Democrats come up with. They kept defections to a minimum on the recent House vote for a nonbinding resolution disapproving of a troop increase in Iraq, and they blocked a similar resolution in the Senate.

The debates were evident as Congress returned from its Presidents Day recess yesterday to resume discussions on how to proceed on Iraq. In the House, Democrats are divided over a plan by Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, to require that troops be trained and equipped to a certain level before being sent to Iraq.

In the Senate, lawmakers have postponed further debate about the war for up to two weeks while they seek a consensus and finish work on a bill to enact the anti-terrorism recommendations of the Sept. 11 commission.

"We are not going to drop the issue," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, an Illinois Democrat. But "we have to face the reality that without 60 votes, we can't enact any law or any appropriation in the Senate."

Senate Democrats are debating whether to revise the 2002 authorization that gave Bush the authority to use force in Iraq and to seek troop withdrawals beginning this summer.

Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who voted against the 2002 resolution and has called for setting a deadline for a troop withdrawal, said rewriting the war authorization is the wrong move. "I did not vote for this war, and I'm not going to vote to authorize it in another form," he said.

Sen. Jim Webb, a Virginia Democrat, said the 2002 authorization no longer applies to the situation in Iraq.

House Democrats also are engaged in a debate over how best to proceed without being portrayed as undermining troops.

"We're going to figure it out in the days ahead," said House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, before a closed-door meeting last night.

Pelosi batted away the notion that Democrats would limit funding for the troops by tying it to readiness, as Murtha proposes. Whether readiness standards will be tied to a $100 billion supplemental spending bill to fund the troops is unclear. Pelosi said it is up to the House Appropriations Committee, which has yet to write the legislation.

GOP lawmakers who support the war are watching the Democrats with irritation.

"All I wish is they would give this strategy a chance to succeed," said Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican.

Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned Congress yesterday that if it holds up or puts conditions on the administration's request to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it would have a disastrous effect.

"If these additional funds are delayed, the military will be forced to engage in costly and counterproductive reprogramming actions starting this spring to make up for the shortfall, " Gates said. "Timely enactment of this supplemental request is critical to ensuring our troops in the field have the resources they need."

Jill Zuckman and Aamer Madhani write for the Chicago Tribune.

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