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Iraq Vote Splits Democrats Again

With the House set to vote today on a GOP-drafted resolution stating that the world is a safer place since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Democrats were scrambling late Tuesday to find a way to express their support for U.S. troops without providing an endorsement of Bush administration policy.

The resolution, which is timed to coincide with this week’s first anniversary of the start of the war in Iraq, left Democratic Members privately fretting about the potential fallout for them in a presidential election year.

House Democrats, including Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (Md.), have so far stood divided on every key vote related to the conflict.

“They again are putting us in a tough, tough position,” said a Democratic leadership aide, adding that “even highly paid political consultants” couldn’t come up with a way for Democrats to uniformly support the troops and oppose a resolution with partisan overtones.

But one Republican leadership aide dismissed the suggestion that the resolution was designed to embarrass House Democrats and expressed surprise that the language could be perceived as controversial.

“We didn’t do it to put them in a bad political position,” said the GOP aide. “We did it to restate our position. Saddam Hussein is evil and the country is better off without him. What part of that do they not agree with?”

Republican aides also contended that they specifically left out of the resolution any mention of weapons of mass destruction or of President Bush’s leadership in hopes of garnering what one staffer called “broad bipartisan support” for the measure.

High-level Democratic aides and Members would not speculate on how the vote would turn out, but expected that as many as 75 to 100 lawmakers could vote against the resolution.

“They are trying to divide us, that’s clear,” said a senior Democratic leadership aide. Pelosi, who was still weighing where to stand on the vote herself, privately told Members at her leader’s lunch Tuesday that they all must follow their conscience on the resolution. But she urged those who plan to vote for it to spend their debate time talking about what she believes to be the Bush administration’s foreign policy failures in the region.

The Minority Leader, along with other key Democratic Members, told the Caucus to focus today’s debate on issues such as the loss of lives, allegations that the White House lacked a solid plan to rebuild the country, charges that American troops were not provided adequate equipment and the point that inspectors never found weapons of mass destruction.

Hoyer, who earlier in the day said he would support the resolution and expected most Members to do so as well, told his colleagues in the same private Pelosi luncheon that Republicans were “trying to lay a trap for us.”

The No. 2 Democrat told reporters that while there are concerns in the Caucus about the resolution, he would support it on the basis that it backs and congratulates American troops.

But he said the measure does raise questions about the political motivations of Republicans. In reference to the Democratic presidential nominee, Hoyer noted: “There is only one issue on which this administration is doing better in the polls than [Sen.] John Kerry, and that is the issue of terrorism.”

Rep. Alcee Hastings (D-Fla.), an Intelligence and Rules Committee member, charged that the GOP is “trying to put Democrats in a box” on the vote.

He added that Members in both parties support the troops, but the rub on the resolution comes because the Democrats cannot in good conscience tip their hat to Republicans and say the world is safer without Hussein in light of last week’s terrorist attacks in Spain.

Hastings said the resolution is a “pure political ploy” since Republicans wouldn’t allow Democrats to help draft the resolution in the first place, nor were they likely to allow any amendments or alternatives to the measure.

Speaker Dennis Hastert’s (R-Ill.) spokesman John Feehery, however, countered there would be no reason for his boss to reach across the aisle to work with Pelosi and the Democrats on the resolution.

“Nancy Pelosi and the Speaker just fundamentally disagree on this issue,” said Feehery. “She has come out against the war … with an ‘appease Saddam Hussein’ policy.”

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