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Democrats face war strategy fight

February 16, 2007|Janet Hook | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Now comes the hard part.

Congressional Democrats quickly and easily united behind a nonbinding resolution denouncing President Bush's plan to send more U.S. troops to Iraq. But after the measure's expected approval in the House today, party leaders will confront more divisive questions: how to force a determined president to back down from his plan, and whether to push for a complete withdrawal.

Senior House Democrats are crafting a strategy to block a troop escalation in Iraq without exposing the party to charges that it is undermining the military.

But antiwar advocates would rather set a firm target date for withdrawing all troops. More moderate Democrats, especially those in Republican-leaning districts, are worried that direct steps to limit Bush's war powers are fraught with political peril.

In the Senate, meanwhile, a more immediate obstacle looms.

Facing procedural hurdles set up by Republicans, Democrats are still struggling to pass a nonbinding resolution that mirrors the House measure. On Thursday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada said he would hold an unusual Saturday session to bring the issue to a head, although it remained unclear whether he had enough votes to break the deadlock that stalled action earlier this month.

Regardless of the outcome of the Senate tiff, Capitol Hill's focus in the weeks ahead will turn to Bush's request for additional funding for the war. As they consider it, Democrats will be exploring just how far they can go in challenging him.

One thing is clear: Democratic leaders will be under pressure from the party's rank and file -- especially activists who will play a major role in choosing their 2008 presidential candidate -- to go beyond symbolic denunciations of Bush's policy.

"Congress has no choice but to do some binding action after the nonbinding resolution, or the antiwar community will go berserk if they are perceived as hesitating," said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of Moveon.org, the liberal online group.

Today's House vote will stand as Congress' first formal repudiation of Bush's Iraq policy, a rare wartime rebuke for a commander in chief. Support for the measure demonstrates that Democratic lawmakers who just a year ago were wary of criticizing Bush over Iraq have been emboldened by the GOP's shellacking in the November election.

Democratic leaders acknowledge the limits of their power to change Bush's policy, noting their party's narrow majority in the Senate and Bush's veto power. But they say they are pushing to create a political climate that forces Bush to change his approach.

Bush has said the House resolution would not affect him, but House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) on Thursday told reporters, "I don't know that the president can completely ignore it; this is the voice of the American people."

Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said he and other party leaders "are going to keep ratcheting up the pressure so that public opinion and congressional opinion is so strong that the president will have no choice but to change strategy."

But he added, "There is not just one vote at any one time that is going to be the magic pill that changes it.''

As part of their efforts, Democrats and political activists are planning to ramp up pressure on Republicans during next week's recess on Capitol Hill.

In an opening volley, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee today will start running newspaper ads in New Hampshire and Oregon -- two states where antiwar sentiment runs strong -- attacking Republican incumbents who face reelection next year and who voted with their party last week to block Senate debate on Iraq.

On the eve of the House's vote, Moveon.org Thursday hosted 1,300 meetings around the country where activists viewed an antiwar documentary and a video message from Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), an influential war critic.

During next week's recess, the group plans antiwar rallies at congressional offices of 180 Republicans and Democrats who are deemed insufficiently committed to ending the war.

"The message that keeps going out is: 'Stop the escalation; stop the war,' " said Matzzie.

Republicans are putting out a different message: that the nonbinding resolution denouncing Bush's troop buildup is a stalking horse for future efforts to roll back funding for the war.

Echoing comments by other GOP lawmakers throughout this week's House debate, Rep. Shelley Moore Capito (R-W.Va.) said, "My opposition lies not in what [the nonbinding] resolution says, but in what I fear it is intended to do -- and that is to lay the foundation to begin cutting funding from our troops."

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