WASHINGTON — After 4 1/2 years of combat and hundreds of billions of dollars in funding, the debate over the Iraq war -- at least on Wednesday -- came down to two dozen people dressed in fluorescent pink and the oldest member of the U.S. Senate.
Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.), who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee and turns 90 in November, denounced President Bush and vowed not to rubber-stamp the administration's request for nearly $200 billion more in war spending. Cheering loudly were war protesters from the group Code Pink, now a fixture at every Washington hearing even tangentially related to Iraq.
"Are we really seeking progress toward a stable, secured Iraq? Are we?" demanded Byrd.
"No!" shouted protesters.
"What do we mean when we say, 'Support the troops?' " Byrd continued.
"Bring them home!" one Code Pink member shouted.
On went the call-and-response, protesters shouting approval as Byrd preached.
"In the fifth year of this terrible, misguided conflict, this senator -- yeah, this man from the hill country -- believes that it is time for a thorough evaluation of the Bush war in Iraq," he said.
"Amen," shouted his chorus.
As he finished, the Code Pink members rose in applause. "That is what a Democrat looks like," shouted one.
Most Democratic lawmakers seem uneasy with Code Pink. Its name mocks the Bush administration's color-coded terrorism alert system, and members frequently get arrested in protests.
But the love between Byrd and the Code Pinkers did not last. Curiously, it was not war slogans that changed things, but the issue of gays in the military. Marine Gen. Peter Pace, outgoing chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was asked about his comments in March that homosexuality was immoral.
Pace said the law known as "don't ask, don't tell" allowed gays to serve in the military. But he reasserted his belief that homosexuality was "counter to God's law."
Members of Code Pink unleashed a torrent of protest. Byrd pounded his gavel and ordered the removal of the protesters who had applauded him a mere 90 minutes earlier.