'Tough Issue' of Iraq Divides Democrats
By Charles Babington and Helen Dewar
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, June 14, 2004; Page A15
At a well-attended news conference last month, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania -- one of the Democrats' most respected (and hawkish) lawmakers on military matters -- proposed sending many thousands more U.S. troops to Iraq to help stabilize that nation. He also noted he has long favored restarting the draft.
The response from his fellow Democrats? Crashing silence.
In a closed Democratic caucus meeting a few days later, liberal Rep. Jim McDermott (Wash.) urged Congress to set a firm date for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. The response? A handful of colleagues seconded the idea, but everyone else ignored it.
The congressional debate over Iraq would be more pointed and partisan if the minority party were not so divided on the issue, Democratic leaders say. There's no consensus among Democrats for escalation, for a prompt withdrawal, for a cutoff of funds or for a massive increase in funds. Virtually all Democrats say the United States should attract more international peacekeepers to share the burden, but the Bush administration has been trying to do that for months.
"Is there an absolute consensus? No," Democratic Caucus Chairman Robert Menendez (N.J.) said in a recent interview. Like many Democrats, he blamed President Bush for alienating traditional allies and mishandling efforts to pacify and rebuild Iraq. "Americans can't lead when they can't get others to follow," Menendez said.
Rep. Benjamin L. Cardin (Md.) said Democrats' options are limited because Iraq is too volatile for a U.S. withdrawal, the public will not support a massive troop increase and European nations feel the administration has snubbed them in dealing with Iraq.
"The president made a lot of mistakes, but we are where we are," Cardin said. "It's a tough issue, because we're in a horrible position over there and there's no easy answer."
Rep. Robert C. "Bobby" Scott (Va.) put it succinctly. "There's not going to be consensus within the Democratic caucus," he said. "We're Democrats."
Actually, every Democrat interviewed agreed on one thing: Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) would do a better job than Bush in building an international coalition of peacekeepers and leading Iraq to a stable, democratic form of government. The nation's best bet, they say, is to wait for a Kerry victory in the fall and inauguration as president in January -- more than seven months away.
AMEND THAT: As elections approach, lawmakers are struggling in record numbers to write their favorite causes into the U.S. Constitution, producing more than 100 proposed amendments in the House and an additional dozen or so in the Senate
Many, such as those that would abolish the federal income tax or give constitutional protection to the Ten Commandments, are unlikely to get anywhere.
The Senate tentatively plans to vote by the Fourth of July on an amendment that would empower Congress to ban desecration of the U.S. flag, which the House has passed several times. It has always died in the Senate, though the margin of defeat has dwindled over the years. Sponsors see an outside chance that it might pass because of the patriotic pressures of an election year.
A Senate judiciary subcommittee voted 5 to 4 to approve the amendment earlier this month. The full Judiciary Committee is expected to act soon.
A two-thirds majority in both houses is required for a proposed amendment to be sent to the states, where it must be ratified by at least three-fourths of the legislatures. That hurdle was last cleared in the early 1990s when a relatively minor amendment involving congressional pay, first proposed two centuries ago, was ratified.
The Supreme Court overturned a federal statute banning flag desecration in 1989, ruling it a violation of free-speech rights. An effort to legalize the protections through a constitutional amendment garnered 51 Senate votes later that year -- far short of the needed two-thirds majority. By 2000, when the amendment was last submitted to the Senate, it drew 63 votes, four short of the 67 needed when all 100 senators vote.
Strategists on both sides of the issue say the amendment probably has picked up a vote or two since 2000, but passage remains doubtful this year.
Meanwhile, Rep. Ernest J. Istook Jr. (R-Okla.) says House leaders have assured him that his amendment to require a balanced federal budget will reach a vote this year. It, too, has passed the House in previous years, only to die in the Senate. The Senate has no plans to vote on the budget amendment this year, according to Senate aides.
Still in limbo is a proposed amendment to ban gay marriages. House and Senate leaders have not decided whether to schedule a vote on the proposal this year, and lawmakers are still arguing over its wording. Meanwhile, the issue seems to generate little buzz in congressional corridors, even in a year when few major bills are competing for attention.
THE WEEK AHEAD: Former president Ronald Reagan's funeral ceremonies prompted Congress to postpone last week's legislative schedule, so this week will be busy as lawmakers try to catch up.
The House, which plans rare votes on all five weekdays, will consider several energy-related bills. One would allow oil and gas exploration in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. The House also plans to take up 2005 appropriations bills for Interior and Homeland Security.
The Senate is expected to tackle amendments to the 2005 defense reauthorization bill.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company