Democrats Go Slowly On Iraq

Party Avoids Bold Moves

Posted April 21, 2008 at 6:51pm

A year and a half after voters’ frustrations over the Iraq War carried Democrats to victory in Congress, the last solid opportunity for the party to change the direction of the conflict appears likely to pass with only token attempts to bring it to an end.

Democrats have decided to use the supplemental war spending bill to pursue a more targeted approach rather than offer the kind of clear-cut statements they attempted last year — setting a deadline for troop withdrawal or cutting off funding for combat missions. The three-pronged message will focus on how they believe the war has been mismanaged from military, economic and national security perspectives.

“There’s been a shift away from the timeline-oriented stuff and more toward the cost of the war,” said one senior Senate Democratic aide. “It is a recognition that most people understand that the serious shift in strategy that people want is probably going to have to wait until the next president.”

“I think it’s clear that the president isn’t going to change policy in Iraq, and the Republicans are going to keep standing lock step with him,” echoed a House Democratic leadership aide, who acknowledged that in the end, Democrats will provide the funding for the war. “At this point, it’s better to move on” and point out that Republicans are opposing domestic relief such as extending unemployment insurance benefits while supporting more war.

House Democrats, who will craft the initial bill, still have to choose whether to include a timetable for withdrawal in the initial bill, even though they concede that they lack the votes to override the president and will likely have to eliminate it in conference to assure that the funding is available for soldiers in combat.

Acknowledging that withdrawal dates are a dead end, Democrats said they will focus on proposals tailored to address all three of their concerns: that military readiness has deteriorated during the Iraq War, that the domestic economic downturn has a direct relation to the hundreds of billions of dollars spent on the conflict and that U.S. national security has suffered because of the war.

Many Democrats feel they have been beating their heads against a wall with their repeated failed attempts to drawdown troops or force a change in the military’s mission in Iraq. In February, that frustration came to a head when Senate Republicans forced an extended debate on a troop drawdown bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) only brought up as a way to assuage an anti-war crusader, Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Reid had intended to have perfunctory votes and move on to a housing foreclosure bill when Republicans forced a nearly weeklong debate.

Even before that debate, Democrats were shifting from trying to force an end to the war to trying to compel the Bush administration to spend more on domestic “emergencies.”

Democrats have yet to choose how large of a domestic package to include with the war funding, nor have they decided whether to try and mold it into one bill — when they know they will be accused of holding the troops hostage for “pork” — or to have two separate bills. Having separate stimulus legislation might put the spotlight on Democratic priorities and make it harder for Republicans to caricature the spending, a Democratic aide said.

House liberals as well as Blue Dogs want separate votes on a stimulus package and the war, although Blue Dogs have warned Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) that they want future stimulus packages to comply with pay-as-you-go rules, which could limit the size of the package.

So, while domestic spending amendments are likely to abound as the supplemental begins to wend its way through both chambers next month, Democrats also are still looking for targeted war-related amendments that will show they have some ability to affect the course of the war.

Those amendments are likely to include a proposal by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to force Iraq to pay back some of the U.S.-funded reconstruction in the country.

In the House, there have been proposals from both sides of the aisle aimed at forcing the Iraqis to spend more of their money on reconstruction and converting U.S. grants into loans, as well as tightening regulation of contractors and adding funding for wounded veterans.

While the Nelson-Collins measure appears to have a chance of passing, measures to pull troops out of Iraq or force a change in the mission have narrowly passed the House while repeatedly failing to get the 60 votes necessary to beat back a GOP-led filibuster.

Senate Democrats also are putting their energy into shoring up support for a Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) bill to expand education benefits in a “GI bill” for veterans returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Webb is likely to revive his proposal to require shorter troop deployments and longer rest periods at home — a plan aimed to reduce the stress on soldiers and improve the overall readiness of the military.

Democrats acknowledge it’s a piecemeal approach but say the two measures have bipartisan support and could lead to more significant pieces being passed down the road.

“I wouldn’t count these as small things,” said another Senate Democratic aide with knowledge of leadership’s thinking. “We are still trying to change the direction of the war. It could be anything from the GI bill to military readiness … which will be no small feat.”

But House Democratic leaders have yet to decide how to structure the upcoming war supplemental and are facing a number of thorny choices for bringing up a bill many in their own Caucus would prefer to avoid.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) has argued against attempting to add timetables, though that may mean losing scores of votes from Democrats that will have to be made up by Republicans. Democrats on both sides of the Capitol also are considering a proposal to fund the wars through next June in an effort to put the focus on the presidential race and avoid another messy Iraq supplemental fight this fall.

“We know at the end of the day we are not going to be able to end the war, but at the same time want to set it up for a real opportunity for change, which is going to be next year,” said a House Democratic aide. “It takes the focus off of what Congress is doing, and puts the camera back on the president, and we’re not tied up on a fight that is pointless as long as we don’t have enough votes.”

House leaders also are considering whether to hold separate votes on a timetable-free war-funding package that many Democrats will vote against and a domestic stimulus package that liberals will support, the aide said. The legislation could then be sent to the Senate as a single bill.

But the aide cautioned that “nothing has been decided and at this point everything is pure speculation, whether there will be one bill or two bills or whether they will be combined later.”

House Democratic leaders hope this week to hash out the details of their supplemental strategy so they can have a bill on the floor in early May.

But Republicans remain suspicious of the Democrats’ new tack on Iraq.

“Democrats are struggling to find a way to appear as if they are reducing troop funding while not actually doing anything,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. “It has nothing to do with national security or conditions on the ground in Iraq, and everything to do with their angry, far-left base.”