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Clinton on the sidelines in efforts to end the war

Despite her vocal criticism, records show she has done little to advance legislation to force a withdrawal of troops from Iraq.

April 03, 2008|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Seeking to convince voters that she can end the Iraq war, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has touted her role in the congressional effort to force President Bush to bring the troops home.

"I've been working day in and day out in the Senate to provide leadership to end this war," Clinton recently told an audience at George Washington University, contrasting her experience with that of rival Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Clinton has been a vocal war critic and introduced three bills last year to curtail the U.S. military role in Iraq. The New York senator has also aggressively questioned administration officials involved in the war.

But since Democrats took control of Congress, Clinton has done relatively little to advance legislation to force the Bush administration to withdraw from Iraq, according to congressional records and lawmakers and staff members who have worked on the issue.

Instead, Clinton largely remained on the sidelines of the congressional debate, her legislation ignored as the Senate focused on measures developed by lawmakers who were more central to the legislative drive to end the war:

* Clinton played a marginal role in Democratic efforts to confront the president's troop "surge" early last year and later in developing the party's legislative strategy of tying money for the war to a timeline for a withdrawal.

* None of her war-related proposals -- which often mirrored measures introduced by other senators -- ever came up for a vote.

* She did not work with moderate Democrats who built GOP support for bipartisan antiwar legislation to overcome Republican-led filibusters.

* And Clinton not only did not develop any measures to mandate a pullout deadline, she actively opposed them until early last year.

"She lent her voice to the Democratic Party's criticism of the administration, which was important," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian who has written extensively about the current Congress. "But she certainly was not at the head of the move to legislate the end of the war."

Obama was equally peripheral to the Iraq war debate, but he has not claimed a similar leadership role. He has argued instead that his opposition to the war in 2002, two years before he was elected to the Senate, makes him the superior candidate.

In contrast to both Democrats, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was a leading voice in the debate, arguing for more troops in Iraq.

Clinton, who voted to authorize the war, has made her Senate experience -- along with her eight years as first lady -- a cornerstone of her argument that she is best prepared to be commander in chief "on Day One."

In Des Moines last summer, she announced a three-step plan to end the war, discussing her legislation "to begin bringing our troops home within 90 days" and to revoke the war authorization Congress gave President Bush.

"It is long past time that the president ended American combat involvement in Iraq's multi-sided, sectarian civil war. . . ." she said. "That is what I have been trying to do in the Senate."

In a March 17 speech in Washington to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion, she explained that ending the war had been her "mission in the Senate."

And she pointed to another bill she introduced last year. "I've started laying the groundwork for a swift and responsible withdrawal beginning in early 2009 by demanding that the Pentagon start planning for it now," Clinton said.

Clinton has earned the support of some of the war's fiercest critics on Capitol Hill. Sixteen members of the House Out of Iraq Caucus recently signed an open letter praising Clinton as "the candidate with the stature, strength and experience needed to end this war as quickly and responsibly as possible." (More than 20 caucus members are backing Obama.)

"For years, Sen. Clinton has been committed to finding any and all possible ways to get the president to reverse his failed policies in Iraq and end the war," said senior Clinton advisor Philippe Reines, noting her three visits to Iraq, her work on the Armed Services Committee, her speeches in favor of a withdrawal and her legislative proposals.

Yet, while Clinton introduced Iraq-related bills -- as have scores of lawmakers -- other senators wrote the war-related legislation that was actually considered, handled delicate negotiations over compromise proposals and worked to round up votes.

These included Delaware's Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Michigan's Carl Levin, the chairmen of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) early last year asked them to draft a resolution with Republicans opposing Bush's surge plan to send about 30,000 more troops to Iraq.

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