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Democrats Form ‘Out of Iraq’ Caucus in House

As the party continues to try to find its voice on Iraq, roughly 50 liberal-minded House Democrats have formed a caucus dedicated to calling for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the region.

The Out of Iraq Congressional Caucus, created last week, will to try to increase pressure on the Bush administration and Congress to end the Iraq conflict and bring American forces home. The group of progressives, led by California Reps. Maxine Waters, Lynn Woolsey and Barbara Lee, has been urging a withdrawal for some time but formalized its effort last week as part of its push to become a more forceful voice on the issue within the broader party Caucus.

Waters said many House Democrats have become increasingly frustrated with the party’s failure to effectively challenge the Bush administration’s policies in Iraq. She said the caucus was needed to help organize a message offensive and ensure that the White House comes up with and presents a plan to conclude the war.

“We have been too quiet, we have not challenged our Caucus to adopt a position on the war and we have not spoken out ourselves because we have been waiting, and hoping that we could all do it as one,” Waters said.

While not calling for a certain date to bring troops home, Waters said the caucus will turn up the volume on demands for an exit strategy through rallies, press events and in the halls of Congress. She said ultimately the group, if not satisfied with answers from the president, will come up with a timeline for withdrawal on its own.

“The administration has a responsibility to say how and when,” she said. “We will not sit around and wait forever.”

Woolsey, who has been pushing for an immediate troop withdrawal for some months, said the goal is simple: “Success for us is two words: Troops. Home.”

Woolsey offered an amendment last month calling for the administration to develop a plan for the withdrawal of forces and to provide Congress with a report outlining the plan. Waters said that Woolsey’s amendment is the baseline for the group and that they will push for nothing short of that.

The Out of Iraq effort comes on the heels of bipartisan legislation by Reps. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) and Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) calling for a timeline for troop withdrawal. It also coincides with House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) call for the Bush administration to provide Congress with a “strategy for success” in the region.

While it is expected to be a vocal group, sources throughout the Democratic Caucus said the larger party message will continue to follow Pelosi’s lead, including calls for more accountability from the White House and that a strategy be set and specific criteria be met as the war continues. The Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee said last week it drew the support via e-mail of more than 13,000 Democrats for Pelosi’s amendment to the Defense appropriations bill calling for a strategy.

Pelosi, House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) and others this week will turn their message efforts to Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) to call for an independent commission to investigate U.S. handling of detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and the Abu Ghraib prison.

One Democratic leadership aide said it is unlikely the leadership position will morph into a call for an immediate troop withdrawal. Pelosi, the staffer said, is working to unify a Caucus long divided on the Iraqi conflict.

“She’s trying to bring people together,” the aide said. “She is very concerned about the way the war is going and she’s been a strong critic of the war, but she’s also concerned that if we did withdraw immediately, there would be consequences we would have in the region.”

Another top Democratic aide said House Democrats are in a tough position because they come from different perspectives on the war. Some supported the effort, while others did not.

“This is tough for the Caucus to come to closure on,” the staffer said. “There’s not necessarily going to be a Democratic position, there’s going to be rhetoric. A lot of this is about how we’re going to talk about it and finding the balance in the base of the party who want the red meat and want ‘when are we getting out’ and the pragmatic centrists who say, ‘let’s be careful in how far we respond to the base of the party.’”

Even with the obvious internal Democratic conflicts, members of the new Out of Iraq caucus say they can’t wait any longer to speak out and try to persuade the entire Caucus and the country to end the involvement. The first manifestation of the group’s effort came at last week’s leadership luncheon where one by one the liberal Members stood up before their fellow House Democrats to call for a plan for withdrawal.

Lee said “the American people want to hear from Democrats” on the issue, and they want to know “we are with them” in wanting a conclusion to the conflict. “The American people want to see this and will connect with us.”

Waters said the group wants to work with the Caucus and believes ultimately the majority of Democrats — many of whom have been hesitant because of the political stakes that came with the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks — will come on board. She said those Members now know that the Iraqi conflict hasn’t made the country safer nor has it stopped the threat of terrorism, adding: “They have realized this war is not it.”

Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said many Members just feel “it’s time for us to end the madness.” He said Democrats haven’t wanted to “do anything to appear we aren’t supporting our troops” but one of the best ways to support them is to bring them home.

“The American people are sick and tired of this war,” he said. “Many of us can no longer hold the peace.”

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