Thursday, March 8, 2007

Democrats stumble when their turn on Iraq arrives

A consensus on how to influence the war is elusive, especially in the House.

Published March 7, 2007

WASHINGTON - Running against the war in Iraq was easy. Deciding how far Congress should go to run the war is not.

After a quick string of successes and strong party unity on bills raising the minimum wage, expanding stem cell research and other popular measures, Democrats in the House are at ideological loggerheads on how to exert their new power over the president's handling of the war in Iraq.

Democrats in the Senate are foundering, too, unable to agree on a course of action that will accommodate their moderate and liberal wings, as well as draw enough Republicans to pass.

But it is in the House where the internal battle is raising fundamental questions about the Democrats' ability to influence the most pressing issue of their time, and how much ownership of the war - and its outcome - they really want.

"To some extent, the Democratic majority is on trial here," said Rep. Jane Harman, a moderate Democrat from California.

"We made promises in the election, and we have to deliver. But finding the position that best represents our new majority is hard."

President Bush has asked Congress for an additional $100-billion for operations in Iraq and Afghanistan. Bush has made such supplemental requests throughout the war, and in the past the Republican-led Congress had simply approved them.

This is the first request with the Democrats in charge, and a large contingent of liberals dearly wants to use the opportunity to reduce troop levels or set a date for pulling out of Iraq. They say the elections proved this is what Americans want.

Many conservative Democrats, however, would rather just fund the president's request and continue their aggressive oversight of war spending and troop readiness. "We're all very nervous about plans that would have us play general," said Rep. Allen Boyd, D-Monticello, who is a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition.

The Republicans have spent the past two weeks portraying the Democrats as ready to cut funding for troops in the field, leaving them vulnerable.

Many Democrats are terrified that characterization will stick. Their antidote has been to promise repeatedly that the spending bill will fully fund the troops.

At the same time, the pocketbook is the only power Congress holds over the president's ability to wage war.

"They're grasping the pistol but they don't want to put their finger on the trigger," said Ross K. Baker, a congressional scholar at Rutgers University.

"The political consequence of it, I think, is all too apparent - the blame would shift from a mismanaged war and the administration to them, for pulling the rug out from under the soldiers."

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., and other leaders are discussing a compromise that would fund the president's request but attach conditions stating he could use the money only to send troops to Iraq who meet the military's own standards for equipment, training and time between deployments.

Many troops do not meet those standards now.

Then, to attract members uneasy about limiting the commander-in-chief's power, Democratic leaders also want to add a provision that would allow Bush to waive those requirements.

Such waivers may be used in the interest of national security, provided the administration explains the reasons.

If that doesn't keep the president from sending more troops to Iraq, Democrats say, it at least will force Bush to misrepresent troop readiness - fodder for more embarrassing hearings - or acknowledge he's sending troops to battle unprepared.

But large numbers of conservatives and liberals don't like it. Boyd and other Blue Dogs say Congress would still be meddling with how the president wages war.

"We got our constituents out there losing lives, losing limbs," said Boyd, who led a rifle platoon in Vietnam. "This is too important to play chicken with."

And liberals say giving Bush a waiver would declaw the measure. "If we're not willing to use the power of the purse, all the rest of it's just going to be talk," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., co-chairwoman of the antiwar Congressional Progressive Caucus.

The Progressives say they hope to introduce their own measure to require the president to use the $100-billion solely for withdrawing the troops from Iraq.

The defection of either the 44-member Blue Dogs or the 71-member Progressive Caucus would doom the passage of any plan, unless it draws strong Republican support.

But GOP leaders say they will urge their members to oppose any bill that restricts Bush's authority.

"I don't think we can make decisions that affect the battlefield," said Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Indian Shores, the top Republican on the subcommittee that oversees military spending.

Democrats met for nearly two hours Tuesday to haggle, and Hoyer said they'll keep talking until they find consensus on how to proceed.

That may take time. The Appropriations Committee was to consider the spending bill - and any restrictions - Thursday, but the meeting was pushed to next week.

"What we're trying to do ... is make policy, not just make points," Hoyer said. "To make policy, we need something that will pass."

Wes Allison can be reached

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