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Democrats struggle over next step

Cracks form in the House caucus over plans to use a spending bill to limit troop deployment in Iraq.

February 28, 2007|Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Democratic lawmakers, who earlier this month nearly unanimously backed resolutions condemning President Bush's plans to boost troop levels in Iraq, are struggling to agree on what to do next in their drive to bring the war to an end.

In the Senate, party leaders who faced dissent in their own caucus have decided to postpone consideration of a binding resolution that would set limits on what U.S. forces could do in the conflict.

And in the House, Democrats are wrestling with even deeper divisions as they try to agree on a way to use a supplemental war funding bill to slow the deployment of more troops in Iraq amid accusations by Republicans that the move would deprive troops of the help they need.

At a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday, three senior House Democrats -- including the chairmen of the Appropriations and Armed Services committees -- urged their colleagues to support the funding strategy, the details of which are being worked out.

But the apparent deceleration of the legislative drive to end the war is dismaying antiwar activists.

"There seems to be a new world land-speed record set in back-peddling," said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman from Maine who heads Win Without War, a coalition of antiwar groups.

Just a few weeks ago, Win Without War was targeting Republicans for standing in the way of the resolutions. Now, Andrews said, antiwar groups are encouraging their members to pressure Democratic lawmakers.

Senior Democrats defended their management of the war issue, insisting there has been no slowdown in their campaign.

"We've been in the majority for six weeks," said Sen. Patty Murray of Washington. "We've had 38 hearings on the Iraq war.... We've already had two votes on the war.... That's a lot better than they've done in the last 3 1/2 or 4 years."

But Democrats are under intense pressure to act. Several recent polls have shown that public support continues to build for congressional action to limit the war.

Less than two weeks ago, the party appeared comfortably in control of the political battle over the war, while Republicans flailed.

House Democrats pushed through a resolution repudiating the White House plan to add 21,500 troops in Baghdad and Al Anbar province, picking up support from a handful of Republicans.

And in the Senate, Democrats twice succeeded in portraying Republicans as obstacles to a debate on the president's strategy. GOP lawmakers blocked consideration of nonbinding resolutions, complaining they were being denied the opportunity to bring forward alternatives.

But as debate has shifted to what Congress will do next, substantial cracks appear to be emerging in the Democratic camp.

In the House, several moderate Democrats have spoken out against a proposal by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to attach conditions to a $93-billion supplemental defense spending bill that could limit the Pentagon's ability to send more troops to Iraq. Murtha, who chairs the appropriations subcommittee that is considering the spending request, is a close friend and ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco). She has indicated some qualified support for his proposal.

House Democrats are exploring setting equipment and training standards for troops before their deployment, shifting more money to fighting terrorism in Afghanistan and setting benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet for continued U.S. funding.

"We're listening to our colleagues about what form they want that supplemental to take," Pelosi said. But, sensitive to the GOP attacks, the speaker said: "We will fund the troops as long as they are in harm's way."

In an interview with CNN's Larry King on Tuesday, Pelosi said that Bush's judgment on the Iraq war was "a little impaired."

Murtha's proposal has come under withering attack from Republicans who say it would deprive troops of the reinforcements they need.

And Tuesday, Marine Gen. Peter Pace, Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman, warned the Senate Appropriations Committee that Murtha's proposal would mean fewer troops fighting in Iraq.

"The effect is damaging on the battlefield," Pace said, noting that instead of the 20 brigades that the military says it needs, there would be about 14 to 19.

Democratic leaders in the Senate have never been enthusiastic about using congressional authority over funding the military to tie up the deployment. But their strategy of rewriting the resolution that authorized the 2003 invasion of Iraq to limit the U.S. mission there also has run into trouble.

Leaders have been circulating a draft by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, and Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the Armed Services Committee chairman. But several senators sounded uncomfortable with language specifying that U.S. troops could engage in some activities, such as counterinsurgency, but not others.

"I think it's very difficult to start changing things after the fact and still avoid micromanaging," said Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a moderate lawmaker who helped lead efforts to pass a nonbinding resolution opposing the deployment of additional troops.

At the same time, Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), a leading antiwar lawmaker, said the proposal did not go far enough.

"The people of this country did not ask us to reshape the mission in Iraq," he said. "They asked us to end it."

The Democratic disagreements brought smiles to the faces of some Republicans on Tuesday. Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who for weeks has been laboring to blunt the Democratic assault on Bush's plan, said: "It seems like they have to have a debate within their own caucus."

*

noam.levey@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

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