Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, April 23, 2007; A15
The Iraq war debate in Congress is a drama with many actors. But along with the usual headliners and party faithful, certain individuals have emerged as bellwether figures. It's a varied bunch: military veterans and antiwar liberals, New Englanders and Texans, representing both sides of the political aisle. Like many ordinary Americans, their views on Iraq are shaped by different life experiences and notions of patriotism and loyalty.
This week, House and Senate Democrats are expected to produce an Iraq funding bill that includes criteria for withdrawing troops. President Bush is certain to veto it, and Democrats are certain to cook up a new strategy for forcing the White House's hand. Here's a sample of the lawmakers who will be crucial to the outcome.
Moderate GOP Sen. Olympia Snowe represents the staunchly antiwar state of Maine and is deeply unhappy with Bush's leadership on Iraq. She opposes the troop buildup that is underway and supported Democratic-led efforts to state Congress's opposition to it. She has proposed her own terms for changing course in Iraq; they establish benchmarks for political progress as conditions for continued U.S. involvement.
But Snowe has quietly remained within the GOP fold during the funding fight.
The senator, who often breaks with her party on fiscal and social issues, accepts the most contentious provision in the Senate Democrats' bill: a March 31, 2008, target date for ending combat operations. The language she finds troubling is the requirement that troop withdrawals begin within 120 days. "Having an end goal is less problematic to me," Snowe explains. But as long as the U.S. military is on the ground, she said, it should have "the maneuverability to do what's necessary."
Snowe, 60, has never had a chance to explain her concerns to Democrats. Despite her well-known willingness to switch sides on high-profile issues, no one on the majority side has gotten in touch on the spending bill. "It wouldn't take a lot" to win her over, said Snowe, who cruised to a third term in November, despite heavy GOP losses in the region. "But they haven't tried."
Nearly two years ago, when most Democrats were still hesitant to set withdrawal dates, Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) proposed a flexible timetable similar to what the Senate approved last month. As his party inched forward with nonbinding resolutions, Feingold grew bolder, setting one deadline after the next. Most have already passed.
In January, Feingold was one of the first Democrats to raise the idea of using the power of the purse to stop the war. On April 2, Feingold hooked a key ally: Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). The unlikely pair unveiled joint legislation to cut off war funding on March 31, 2008.
Serious, outspoken and one of the Senate's liberal outliers, Feingold has little in common with the more cautious and pragmatic Reid. Feingold is a Rhodes scholar and a Harvard University graduate; Reid is a miner's son, a self-made Las Vegas lawyer. But the Democratic leader counts Feingold as one of his most important partners in unifying the unruly Senate Democratic caucus.
"I depend on him for a lot of things," Reid said. "All I know about Russ Feingold is he's a team player, and I appreciate that."
Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) has spent most of his nine House terms quietly warming the back bench. But last month, when the former fighter pilot took to the House floor to speak against the Democrats' Iraq war spending bill, a hush came over the packed chamber.
He recalled his tour of duty in the Vietnam War, when he served as an aide to Gen. William Westmoreland. He recounted his nearly seven years in a Vietnamese prison camp, more than half of that time in solitary confinement. Then Johnson conjured a scene that lawmakers saw unfold on black-and-white televisions or read about in history books, a scene of national defeat and humiliation, a scene that even younger members could not forget.
"Just think back to the dark day in history when we saw visions of American Marines airlifting Vietnamese out of the U.S. Embassy. Do you remember that? That's what happens when America makes a commitment, Congress cuts the funding and we go home with our tails between our legs," he told his colleagues.
Johnson is an unlikely standard-bearer for the war's cause, a lawmaker who has never sought the microphones or the television cameras. But for him, the Iraq debate is like a flashback. By the time Congress cut off funds for Vietnam, the war was largely over, but Johnson still languished in prison, fearing that his nation had abandoned him.
"I know what it's like to be on front lines for country when fellow countrymen don't support you," he said, vowing it will never happen again.
While Johnson languished in a North Vietnamese prison camp, Gilchrest served in the jungles of Indochina, a Marine fighting at a time when each week about 200 Americans died. After his combat tours, he returned home, and he read the Pentagon Papers, Washington's secret history of the war in Vietnam; he read about Ho Chi Minh's contacts with the Roosevelt administration during World War II and about Dien Bien Phu, the battle that drove the French from Vietnam.
When Marines evacuated the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, Gilchrest watched on television, deeply disillusioned about a war that had taken the lives of so many friends.
Gilchrest was one of only two House Republicans to vote for the Democrats' war spending bill last month, and he is helping write the final legislation.
He says that in Iraq, as in Vietnam, infantrymen are using bullets to fight ideas, such as conflicting views of Islam that go back more than a thousand years. After Vietnam, Gilchrest said, the administration should know that bullets do not defeat ideas.
"You see the eye of the person you're fighting. You take a human life. You lose your friends. That takes a toll when you experience it on a daily basis," Gilchrest said. "So before you put someone in that situation, you want to make sure everyone in the administration . . . is competent and there's no dogma, ideology or past ghosts getting in the way."