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Democratic Doves, Threatened Incumbents Complicate President’s Choice on Military Action in Iraq

Kirkpatrick is one of the Democrats for whom the Iraq funding vote could matter on Nov. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)
Kirkpatrick is one of the Democrats for whom the Iraq funding vote could matter on Nov. 4. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Parsing an important congressional roll call, let alone comparing two votes on similar questions a dozen years apart, is a complex and caveat-infused exercise.  

So reactions ranging from “Of course!” and “Aha!” to “Who knew?” and “What’s up with that?” are bound to spring up when reviewing last week’s House vote on funding for a revived combat operation in Iraq — especially when aligning that tally sheet with the one authorizing the initial invasion of the country. During the three days of debate on the annual defense spending package, most of the lobbying furor and press attention was on Pentagon procurement priorities, the House’s move to stop any transfers from Guantánamo and the drive to curtail government spying. But for hard core hawks and ardent doves, the key vote was about whether to bar any new U.S. combat operations to help quell the sectarian warfare that’s overtaking Iraq .  

The outcome wasn’t even close. Just 3 out of every 8 members (165 total) took the anti-war hard line. (Instead, the House adopted by voice vote a requirement that the administration consult and report to Congress before reviving military involvement.)  

While the lopsided result preserved all of President Barack Obama’s options for using force, it masks an important political reality he will be pressed to keep in mind during the next five months. Members of his party with the most to lose on Election Day are minimally supportive of any more war under this commander in chief. Voting in favor of a combat funding prohibition were 7 of the 8 Democrats in races that the Rothenberg Political Report/Roll Call currently rates as either  tossups or tilted only slightly in the incumbent’s favor. (The exception was Ann Kirkpatrick, who’s working to hold a sprawling Arizona district that Mitt Romney carried in 2012.) Of the other Democrats in some measure of re-election trouble, eight voted to allow military operations in Iraq and six voted to prevent such action.  

Among the Democrats in the hunt for a Senate seat, only Gary Peters of Michigan voted to give Obama flexibility. Bruce Braley of Iowa and Colleen Hanabusa of Hawaii went against him.  

Most in the GOP would frame the question differently. They might see it as sticking with or walking away from a commitment the United States made more than a decade ago. Three of the 6 Republicans in the most danger of losing their House seats — Mike Coffman of Colorado, Dan Benishek of Michigan and Chris Gibson of New York — were among just 23 members of the conference who voted for no more war. So did Steve Daines of Montana, the only one of the House GOP’s seven remaining Senate aspirants to take that more isolationist line.  

Last week’s partisan breakdowns are even more interesting when overlaid with the House’s initial ballot to authorize the Iraq War. (Thanks to CQ Senior Researcher Ryan Kelly for the assist.) The most obvious difference: Only one-quarter of the current Republicans and only two-fifths of the Democrats were in office in October 2002 and cast votes on that use of force resolution.  

Only six GOP members voted “no” then, and the only one still in office, John J. Duncan Jr. of Tennessee, was true to that position last week. But five Republicans who voted “yes” initially signaled their belated buyer’s remorse about their commitment on June 19 — including the remaining trio first elected in the 1970s, soon after the end of the Vietnam War. That’s Wisconsin’s Tom Petri and Jim Sensenbrenner, and Alaska’s Don Young. (The others were Dana Rohrabacher of California and Walter B. Jones of North Carolina.)  

The other 49 Republicans still serving nearly 12 years later were consistent in voting for the war and voting in favor of its potential revival.  

While Republicans approached unanimity in backing President George W. Bush’s request for war authority, among House Democrats there were three opposed for every two voting in favor. For a mixture of reasons — not only the decided turn against the war among the party’s base, but also the shrinking roster of centrist Democrats at the Capitol — a much higher percentage of the naysayers from 2002 remain as the doves of the House today.  

Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi was among the 52 caucus members, the vast majority from solidly blue and urban districts, who voted against the war initially and on June 19 against spending for military activities in Iraq in the coming year. Just eight of their colleagues, among them Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer, took the opposite and more hawkish position both times. (This faction will further shrink next year because two of them, Mike McIntyre of North Carolina and Jim Matheson of Utah, are retiring.)  

What’s left is a fascinating collection of senior Democrats who have switched sides along the way, almost exactly split between those who’ve moved left and those who’ve moved right.  

Nine who voted to authorize the war in 2002 reversed, and voted last week to prevent another call to arms. Most prominent among them are Adam Smith of Washington, the ranking member on Armed Services; Nita M. Lowey of New York, the ranking member of Appropriations; and Joseph Crowley of New York, the vice chairman of the Democratic Caucus who is eager to move up in leadership.  

At the same time, eight who opposed the war initially opted this time to vote to keep a return to combat on the table. Assistant Minority Leader James E. Clyburn of South Carolina was the most influential member of this group. But it also includes two senior members of Armed Services, Loretta Sanchez of California and Jim Langevin of Rhode Island, and two most senior minority party members of the Defense Appropriations Subcommittee, Peter J. Visclosky of Indiana and James P. Moran of Virginia.  

There’s surely a nuanced story behind every member whose name popped out in this analysis. The conflicts and confluences behind their potential motivations, on every consequential vote, are a big part of what still makes the House a fascinating thing to watch.

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