Protesting and legislating to end the war

March 30, 2007|By David Sirota

To understand the passionate debate about the Iraq war spending bills over the last two weeks in Congress, and why so many committed anti-war Democrats support the House and Senate bills in their current form, we must understand the difference between protesting and legislating. Lawmakers who know how to use both are often movements' most essential actors.

Protesting is a critical part of American democracy. At its core, it is designed to put pressure on government in the lead-up to legislative decisions. President Bush is requesting a supplemental spending bill for ongoing operations in Iraq. In the opening congressional negotiations about this supplemental bill, anti-war Democrats joined with courageous anti-war organizations to protest the request, and some in the House last week threatened to vote against the bill and defeat it.

That principled stance compelled Democratic leaders to add binding language into the House bill that would force the president to begin a withdrawal of troops from Iraq in spring 2008, with the goal of full withdrawal by September.

Many anti-war progressives in the House continued to threaten to vote against the supplemental bill - a positive move because it made sure Democratic leaders rebuffed attempts by Republicans to strip out the binding language. The protest brinksmanship worked.

Unfortunately, the legislative process demands compromises and does not tend to create perfect outcomes. In this case, the imperfection for war opponents is obvious: The House's Iraq war supplemental bill still includes funding for military operations in Iraq for the next 17 months - a demand of conservative Democrats whose votes were needed to pass the measure.

How does a principled legislator who wants to end the war decide what to do? By gaming out the possible outcomes.

Had these anti-war lawmakers in the House joined with pro-war Republicans in voting the bill down, some imagine that Democrats would have refused to bring up another version of the bill - thus cutting off all funding for the war. But that outcome is impossible in a Congress whose majority right now may be Democratic but - unfortunately - is not anti-war.

It is far more likely that House Democratic leaders would have come back to write a "clean" supplemental bill - one that funds the war but does not include the binding legislation to end it. Under enormous White House pressure not to "leave the troops in the lurch," the Democratic leadership would have had more than 200 pro-war Republican votes to help pass a clean, pro-war bill had the current bill been killed. Put another way, had anti-war House lawmakers followed through on their protest threats and defeated the bill, they most likely would have ended up with a bill that enormously set back the anti-war cause.

By contrast, Democrats in the House who voted "yes" and successfully passed the existing Iraq supplemental took the most effective step at that moment toward ending the war. Their votes compelled the Senate to act accordingly. In its version of the bill, the upper chamber included language ordering the president to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq within 120 days.

The net result is that some form of binding legislation to start withdrawing from Iraq will now likely go to the president's desk - forcing him to choose between an embarrassing veto that cuts off funds for the troops or signing the bill and agreeing to end the war.

Honest people can disagree with the tactics in this situation, but they cannot attack progressive Democrats for "selling out" the anti-war cause in voting for the House bill. Outside protest was absolutely critical in shaping this debate, and it will be critical in making sure binding legislation to end the war ultimately makes it through House-Senate negotiations and to the president's desk intact.

However, when it's time to vote, legislators are not protesters. As long as binding language ending the war was in these bills, voting "yes" was clearly the way to bring the country closer to achieving the anti-war movement's goal.

David Sirota, a former top staffer for the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the House Appropriations Committee, is co-chairman of the Progressive States Network. His e-mail is

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