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Weeks of heavy lobbying by Democratic leaders to align their membership, carried out in early breakfasts, late-night meetings and one-on-one sessions, ended Friday when the House narrowly approved its Iraq War spending bill. Many rank-and-file Members celebrated the victory in an unusual way — by thanking the leaders for what they didn’t do.

Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), who acknowledged that his critics like to characterize him as “too nice for the job,” asserted Friday that it was in fact restraint that helped Democratic leaders win over key votes for the $124 billion spending bill.

“We knew from the very beginning that our diverse Caucus would approach this very sensitive and compassionate issue with great deliberation,” Clyburn said Friday at a press conference following the vote, which passed 218-212, largely along party lines, with expected defections on both sides of the aisle. Fourteen Democrats voted against the bill, while two Republicans voted for it.

“That’s the way we got the votes,” he added. “We left people free to deliberate, free to pray, free to do whatever they needed to come to this decision. … Every single person has said to me that they appreciated us giving them room to work through whatever they needed to work through to get to this decision.”

One Democratic lawmaker, who serves in the Whip operation and asked not to be named, echoed that sentiment, stating: “You want to give people the ability not to be threatened.”

According to Democratic Members and aides, House leaders worked the Caucus along expected lines — Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) focusing on the Progressive Caucus, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) on the Blue Dog Coalition, Clyburn on the Congressional Black Caucus, and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) on many of the now-freshman lawmakers he helped to recruit as candidates in the previous cycle — but also worked across those boundaries in many cases.

“It took everybody reaching out to our members, no one person could get to 218,” said Clyburn spokeswoman Kristie Greco. “It required knowing how to read folks and just working through the Membership.”

Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly added: “It was really a team effort.”

In their efforts to persuade critical Democrats, House leaders pressed a message to Members that voting for the proposed plan — which would require U.S. troops to complete a withdrawal from Iraq no later than 2008 — would be preferable to a straight funding bill with “no strings attached” sought by President Bush, despite its perceived imperfections.

“We all in the leadership said this at one time or another over the last two weeks,” Emanuel said, and later added: “I think everybody came to the conclusion that more of the same with no change was not a viable option.”

While Pelosi credited the victory in large part to freshman Democratic lawmakers, who voted unanimously in support of the measure, Democrats also gained needed support late last week from progressives, many of whom are members of the Out of Iraq Caucus.

The liberal faction of the Caucus had opposed the spending bill, raising concerns that the withdrawal should begin immediately and be completed this year.

While leaders of the Out of Iraq Caucus — California Reps. Lynn Woolsey, Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters — ultimately opposed the bill, the trio agreed to free their members to vote in support of the measure, a decision one Democratic source said came after meetings with the Speaker and other House leaders but largely in response to pleas from Clyburn.

The agreement provided Democrats with at least 10 additional votes and possibly as many as 12, according to Woolsey.

“We didn’t ask for any offers” for delivering the votes, Woolsey said Friday. “This is a vote of conscience for us.”

But the California lawmaker asserted that initial opposition to the measure did prompt leadership to move up its timeline for withdrawal in the final bill.

“The deadlines were brought forward because of our influence,” Woolsey said.

At a press conference Friday afternoon, President Bush tried to dampen the Democratic celebration by reiterating his intention to veto the supplemental if the bill that reaches his desk resembles the one passed by the House.

“Because the vote in the House was so close, it is clear that my veto would be sustained,” Bush said.

But Pelosi said Democrats will continue to back the legislation, stating of an expected House-Senate conference: “I like the bill we passed today. We’ll go in there and fight for that.”

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