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Democrats' War Opposition Not a United Front

Party lawmakers who have rallied around a general push to pull troops from Iraq still disagree on what remedies to offer, if any.

November 20, 2005|Ronald Brownstein | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Last week's emotional congressional debates over Iraq demonstrated the rise of antiwar sentiment among Democrats -- and the challenge the party faces in converting that impulse into a unified alternative to President Bush.

Twin confrontations over Iraq, in the House and the Senate -- highlighted by a ferocious House debate that followed a call by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to immediately begin removing American troops -- showed that the center of gravity among Democrats is rapidly moving toward proposals to accelerate the withdrawal of American troops from the war.

"The last week has changed everything," said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org, a liberal group opposing the war. "The whole debate just jumped ahead six months."

But while the week's events demonstrated rising Democratic hostility to the war, they also underscored the party's continuing divisions over what alternative to offer -- and whether to present a specific alternative at all.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday November 22, 2005 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 62 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraq war debate -- An article in Sunday's Section A about rising antiwar sentiment among congressional Democrats incorrectly attributed to Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) the belief that hardly any Senate Democrats would sign on to a plan for immediate troop withdrawal from Iraq as proposed by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.). That belief was stated by Reid's spokesman, Jim Manley.

Though some insiders believe a majority of House Democrats might ultimately endorse Murtha's proposal to begin an immediate withdrawal from Iraq, only 13 so far have co-sponsored the resolution embodying it. When House Republicans forced a vote Friday on a resolution urging immediate withdrawal, only three Democrats voted yes after the bitter floor debate.

According to one Democratic source, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has dropped plans to seek a vote in early December on adopting a Democratic Conference position in support of Murtha's plan. Murtha has said his proposal could lead to a complete withdrawal of American troops in about six months and the establishment of a "quick-reaction force in the region."

Fearful that the proposal would generate too much opposition among moderate Democrats, Pelosi now plans for the conference only to discuss and debate it, the source said.

The plan Senate Democrats offered last week during that chamber's debate over the war did not seek to change policy nearly as sharply as Murtha does. Their proposal, rejected on a near party-line vote, asked Bush to set estimated timetables for withdrawing American troops as benchmarks of progress in Iraq are reached.

A spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said that based on the conversations that produced Senate Democrats' proposal, Reid believed hardly any Senate Democrats would sign on to Murtha's approach today.

Yet supporters and opponents of the war agree that the cry of opposition from Murtha -- a leading military hawk during his three decades in Congress -- is likely to mark a milestone in the war debate.

"Clearly it was a bombshell and it does shift the debate quite dramatically," said Ivo H. Daalder, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Brookings Institution who was a National Security Council aide under President Clinton.

Many Democratic political strategists and foreign policy analysts have long believed the party can benefit more from criticizing Bush's handling of the war than from specifying an alternative.

Although Democrats may be split on Murtha's specific proposal, his call for a clear break from Bush's policy is likely to strengthen those who want the party to offer concrete alternatives, many observers believe.

Many Republicans also see last week as a turning point. Bush allies believe that Murtha's declaration -- following Senate Democrats' call for estimated timetables -- will identify Democrats with a policy of "cut and run."

"I don't think the country has any doubt there are two positions: One is to stay and fight and the other is to leave," said one Republican strategist familiar with White House thinking.

As public opinion has soured on the war, support for withdrawing troops has grown, according to recent surveys. Nineteen percent of respondents to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup Poll released last week supported an immediate withdrawal, and 33% said that all American troops should be pulled out within a year -- meaning that a majority wants all troops home by the end of 2006.

Among independents, 56% want all troops home within a year, among Democrats 67%, the poll found.

Yet a range of GOP strategists remain confident that their party will benefit as more Democrats push to end America's involvement in the war. "As long as the Bush administration was in the position of having to debate events in Iraq, it hurt us," said the GOP strategist familiar with White House thinking. "When we are in the position of having to debate the Democratic Party on this, it helps us. That's what happened in the 2004 election."

Clifford D. May, president of the conservative Foundation for Defense of Democracies, said: "Democrats can certainly reinforce their brand identification as the party that cannot be trusted in the midst of a national security crisis. That is a real danger for them."

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