With the GOP maintaining a unified front against Democratic efforts to end the Iraq War, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and other party leaders are abandoning efforts at crafting a bipartisan deal on the issue and will instead look to directly tie Republicans to the unpopular conflict, senior leadership aides said Friday.
The decision to ratchet up their partisan rhetoric followed Thursday’s announcement of a joint resolution by House and Senate Democrats setting specific dates for a mass redeployment of troops in Iraq and creating new restrictions on the war effort. Reid is expected to bring the resolution to the floor this week following completion of the 9/11 bill, aides said.
According to Democratic leadership aides, Reid, Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee Chairman Charles Schumer (N.Y.) and other party leaders hope that a more aggressive push to tar vulnerable Republicans up for re-election in 2008 with the prospect of an open-ended commitment to the war will force enough defections to pass legislation forcing Bush to begin bringing the war to an end.
“If they want to follow Bush over the cliff, that’s fine with us,” one Democratic leadership aide said, adding that Democrats will continue to push the issue between now and the 2008 elections in the hopes of eventually forcing a change in the administration or Congressional Republicans.
Saying Democratic Members “are close to unanimity in both Houses,” Schumer accused Republicans of being torn between “their president who says ‘stay the course,’ and the American people who demand change” and warned that Democrats would use the issue as a bludgeon on Republicans up for reelection next year.
“The heat on these Republican Senators that are up in ’08 is tremendous,” Schumer maintained, adding that “this is a campaign … we are going to keep at” until Reid has enough GOP defections to pass a bill.
According to leadership aides, Democrats have thus far tried to walk a careful line of criticizing GOP opposition to efforts to end the war while not being so harsh as to alienate potential GOP allies. But over the past several weeks “it’s become evident that Republicans have decided to march in lockstep with the president” and that, at least at this point, a bipartisan solution is unlikely.
As a result, Reid, Schumer and other leaders have decided to pivot to a more confrontational — and partisan — approach starting this week and will attempt to portray opposition to the joint resolution as de facto support for Bush’s war plans.
“They have made a politically perilous decision to stand with the president,” a Democratic aide said, and Reid will attempt to use Bush’s low poll numbers and public concern with the war to pressure Republican Members to break ranks.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, will continue to make the case that Democrats are in disarray on the war and that any efforts to bring about an end to the war amount to a dangerous micromanaging of the war by Congress.
One GOP leadership aide noted that despite early jitters within the Conference, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has done an excellent job of keeping his Members together and in reasserting Republicans’ vaunted discipline. “Part of our strength in this debate has been staying on message” and not being dragged in to fights over specific Democratic proposals or process questions, the aide said.
But despite their successes in recent weeks, McConnell and other Republicans acknowledge Iraq is a politically perilous issue for them because of its unpopularity with voters.
In an interview with Roll Call reporters and editors Friday, McConnell said Democrats appear intent on keeping the focus on the war, arguing that Democrats’ success with the issue in 2006 has convinced many in the new majority that it is “the gift that keeps on giving.”
He also said that Senate Democrats appear intent on making it a cornerstone of their 2008 campaign strategy. Pointing to the fact that Democrats have proposed some 17 different Iraq resolutions or bills since November, McConnell maintained “the best evidence of that is that they keep moving the goal post” on how they want to deal with Iraq.
“Would I like the election to be about something else? You bet,” McConnell said, arguing that Republicans would have much better terrain in a fight over the economy.
“We are the economic engine of the world in many ways” but that fact has become lost in public concern over Iraq, McConnell argued. Iraq has “just put people in a kind of funky mood,” he lamented.
But even McConnell — one of the White House’s staunchest supporters on the war — acknowledged that conditions on the ground must change and that Iraq will need to demonstrate improvements.
“This is the Iraqis’ last chance to get it right. … They need to show they can govern right now. Not next year. Not this fall. Now. Right now,” a clearly upset McConnell said.
Meanwhile, unburdened by having to craft their own policy on funding the Iraq War, House Republicans appear to be unified against the supplemental in its current form.
“There is nearly unanimous opposition in the Republican Conference to any proposal that undermines the troops’ ability to fight and win the war on terror,” said Brian Kennedy, a spokesman for Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio). “Our Members are committed to sustaining a united front against anything short of full and unqualified funding for the troops.”
The House Republican Conference held a special meeting Friday morning to discuss the spending bill. Multiple Members and aides in attendance said almost all of the chamber’s 201 Republican lawmakers are prepared to take the potentially risky vote against a war-funding bill.
House Republican leaders are united in opposition, and Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.) also told the Conference he would vote against the measure.
Much of the rank and file are looking to veteran Rep. Bill Young (R-Fla.) for guidance on how to vote. Young is Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) counterpart on the Appropriations subcommittee on Defense and the most senior Republican in the House.
Young told his colleagues Friday that he was — at that point — prepared to vote against the measure. He said he was reluctant to vote against any funding bill for the military, but that the Democratic bill was unacceptable.
However, Young left open the possibility that he could ultimately support the bill if Democrats remove date-specific provisions on troop withdrawal. That appears unlikely, as doing so would result in anti-war Democrats voting against the bill.
Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), a Vietnam War veteran and former prisoner of war, gave the most stirring speech at Conference, attendees said. “He said, ‘We need to call this what it is — a piece of crap,’” recalled a GOP leadership aide.
House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) was unusually candid in his whip count last week, stating that he expected all Republicans who voted against the mid-February Iraq resolution to oppose the supplemental, “give or take one or two.”
There were 17 Republicans who voted with Democrats on that resolution, and two Democrats who voted with Republicans. Of those 17 Republicans, several already have indicated they are likely to oppose the supplemental, including GOP Reps. Tom Davis (Va.), Mark Kirk (Ill.) and Howard Coble (N.C.), and GOP leaders are confident they can whittle that number into the single digits if the underlying bill is not substantially changed before it hits the House floor.