Political Pulse March 2007

Turning Up the Heat

Democrats are facing intense pressure to cut off funding for the Iraq war immediately.
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Are congressional Democrats united or divided over Iraq? The answer is, both.

Democrats are united in opposition to President Bush's Iraq policy. That's certainly true of Democrats in Congress. "What we agree about is that this is President Bush's war and a failure of leadership," said freshman Rep. Steve Kagen, D-Wis. "That's why we got elected."

Democratic voters likewise oppose Bush's Iraq policy. In last week's Gallup/USA Today poll, 84 percent of Democrats nationwide said that the war in Iraq was a mistake. Democrats are nevertheless having trouble forging a unified position on what they should do about the war. Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut's "independent Democrat," who got thrown off the Democratic ticket last year because of his pro-war views, said, "I see that Democrats are having trouble—those who oppose the war—in agreeing on some tactic to try and stop it."

Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina tells the war's critics, "If you want to stop the surge, cut off funding. That is the role of Congress." That challenge is the GOP's version of, "Go ahead—make my day."

Democratic members of Congress are facing intense pressure from anti-war activists to take Graham's dare and cut off funding for the war immediately. The pressure was obvious in a videotaped confrontation between Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, and war protesters. "We don't have the votes" to cut off funds, Obey told them. "We do have the votes to end the legal authority for the war, and that's the same as defunding it."

Many moderate Democrats who represent Republican-leaning districts in the South or West are skittish about any policy that opponents could depict as cutting off money for the troops. As Kagen puts it, "We have to support our troops, but not this policy." Asked whether Congress should stop funding the war in Iraq, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a hero to many anti-war activists, replied, "I think we have to do what we can do in order not to hurt the troops."

Democratic leaders in Congress have come up with their answer: a timeline. In the House version, as Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., described it, "If all the benchmarks are met, our troops are out no later than August of 2008." The Senate resolution endorses "the goal of redeployment, by March 31, 2008, of all U.S. combat forces from Iraq." Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, the Democratic presidential front-runner, signed on as a co-sponsor, marking the first time she has endorsed a deadline for withdrawal. It happens to be the same deadline that Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois, her principal rival for the nomination, called for a month ago.

Can congressional leaders' efforts to impose a timetable unite Democrats? In the Gallup Poll, 30 percent of Democrats said they wanted the United States to withdraw all troops from Iraq immediately; 23 percent said that the U.S. should stay as many years as needed or should send more troops. In the middle, 46 percent of Democrats said they favored withdrawing U.S. troops within a year—the Senate Democratic leadership's position.

The division among rank-and-file Democrats parallels the split in Congress, where 31 percent of the House's Democratic members line up with the "Out of Iraq" caucus, and the moderate Blue Dog Democrats account for 17 percent. That gives the group in the middle a slim majority—52 percent of House Democrats.

Suppose the congressional Democrats draw together around a timeline. Any measure will need to attract 60 votes in the Senate. Meanwhile, Bush has said he will veto any plan that sets a timetable for withdrawal of U.S. forces. Democrats don't have enough votes to override a veto. So, what's the point?

The point is to turn the heat up on the Republicans, who have so far held together behind the president's policy even though nearly one-third of GOP voters have turned against the war. "This is a campaign," Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., said. "We are going to keep at it, and we are going to continue this discussion for the good of the country. We believe the more it is debated and discussed, the more the difference between the parties is apparent to the American people, the less flexibility the president will have in maintaining his course."

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William Schneider is the Cable News Network's senior political analyst. He is also a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., and a contributing editor for the Los Angeles Times, National Journal, and The Atlantic Monthly. His column appears every week in National Journal, a weekly magazine covering politics and government published in Washington, D.C.

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