War Votes Could Split Democrats

Posted April 13, 2010 at 6:40pm

Anti-war Democrats in both chambers will be keeping their eyes peeled in the coming weeks for opportunities to press for votes on their proposals to curb U.S. troop involvement in Afghanistan.

Should they succeed, those votes could expose a rift among Democrats generally — and specifically among members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus — about their approach to President Barack Obama’s Afghanistan policy.

Although members of the liberal bloc were unified in their opposition to the Iraq War, the 80-plus member group has been more muted and somewhat scattered in its response to Obama’s plans to send more than 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.

Like the rest of Congress, liberals have been preoccupied with health care in recent months. But as lawmakers return to Washington, D.C., from their two-week spring recess and prepare to consider Obama’s request for $33 billion to help pay for the Afghanistan troop escalation and ongoing operations in Iraq, war opponents are poised for a new effort to install a Congressionally imposed timetable for troop withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) today plans to introduce a proposal calling for a “flexible timetable” to draw down U.S. troops from the country.

McGovern said he was increasingly uncomfortable with an open-ended troop deployment, despite Obama’s pledge to begin withdrawing troops from Afghanistan next summer.

“I think we ought to want to know not just when the first soldier is coming home but when the last soldier is coming home as well,” he said.

McGovern’s proposal is significant in part because he coordinated with the Senate’s leading anti-war Democrat — Sen. Russ Feingold (Wis.) — to develop it. Feingold also is expected to introduce companion legislation in the Senate this week.

Feingold’s and McGovern’s proposals could signal a hardening stance on the part of anti-war Democrats in Congress, many of whom did not press Obama particularly hard during his first year in office to end U.S. military involvement in Afghanistan.

McGovern has not yet decided whether he will try to attach his proposal to the upcoming supplemental spending bill.

“This would be a good vote on the supplemental, I think, but I haven’t talked to anyone in leadership yet,” McGovern said Tuesday night.

In addition to the war money, Obama is seeking about $2.8 billion in relief funds for earthquake-stricken Haiti, which first lady Michelle Obama visited Tuesday on the heels of a visit by a group of lawmakers over the recess.  

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (Md.) on Tuesday said the supplemental was among the items the House would consider “in the coming weeks.” A Democratic leadership aide said no decisions have been made about how the supplemental — which appropriators could mark up as soon as next week — would be structured, and specifically whether war funding and Haiti money would be folded into a single proposal or whether Members would be able to cast votes separately for each.

If McGovern does decide to press for a vote on his proposal as part of the supplemental, the move would highlight deep divisions with the Democratic Caucus over the question of whether it is wise for Congress to impose timetables on the administration for withdrawing troops from Afghanistan.

“We haven’t settled on the best legislative strategy yet,” McGovern spokesman Michael Mershon said in an e-mail.

The fiscal 2011 defense authorization or appropriations bills could provide other forums for anti-war Democrats to press their case for troop withdrawal.   Only about half of the Congressional Progressive Caucus supported a privileged resolution that Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) offered last month that would have subjected Obama to a 30-day deadline to withdraw U.S. troops from Afghanistan. The measure, which would have given the administration until the end of the year to withdraw troops if the administration deemed a faster draw-down unsafe, drew just 65 votes, including five from Republicans.

Reps. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.) and Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), who co-chair the CPC, supported Kucinich’s resolution, as did McGovern.

McGovern said he thought his proposal could more effectively galvanize progressives to unify behind a critique of 0bama’s Afghanistan strategy.

“I think more people will be comfortable signing on to this,” he said.

Kucinich spokesman Nathan White said Tuesday that he was not aware of any immediate plans for Kucinich to seek another vote on his proposal but did not rule out that possibility.

Meanwhile, McGovern, Feingold and Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) — whose district includes Marine Corps Base Camp Lejeune — are pressing the administration to act on its own to set a road map for getting troops out of Afghanistan.

Mershon said Tuesday that McGovern had not yet received a response to a letter that the trio sent to the president on April 9 voicing concern about the administration’s Afghanistan strategy and calling on Obama to set a timetable for troop withdrawal that, while flexible, would “clearly specify any variables that would warrant its alteration.”

Jones, who visited wounded soldiers in the Washington area Monday, said he would co-sponsor McGovern’s proposal and that he hoped the Republicans who supported Kucinich’s resolution would sign on as well.

“Why in the world are we sending our kids over there? For what?” he said.
Jones said he hoped the upcoming debate over the supplemental would ignite a broad review in Congress of the administration’s approach to Afghanistan, a review he said was sorely overdue.