By Jonathan Weisman and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 11, 2007
Senior House Democrats said yesterday that they will attempt to derail funding for President Bush's proposal to send an additional 21,500 troops to Iraq, setting up what could become the most significant confrontation between the White House and Congress over military policy since the Vietnam War.
Senate Democrats at the same time will seek bipartisan support for a nonbinding resolution opposing the president's plan, possibly as early as next week, in what some party officials see as the first step in a strategy aimed at isolating Bush politically and forcing the beginning of a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from the conflict.
The bold plans reflect the Democrats' belief that the public has abandoned Bush on the war and that the American people will have little patience for an escalation of the U.S. military presence in Iraq. But the moves carry clear risks for a party that suffered politically for pushing to end an unpopular war in Vietnam three decades ago, and Democratic leaders hope to avoid a similar fate over the conflict in Iraq.
The striking new approach took shape yesterday morning during a closed-door meeting of the House Democratic Caucus, where Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), invoked Martin Luther King Jr. as she urged her members against timidity, members who were there said. House Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), a quiet, hawkish supporter of the war, stunned many of his colleagues when he came out strenuously against Bush's proposal and suggested the war is no longer militarily winnable.
Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense and the party's leading voice for withdrawing troops, is to report back to Appropriations Committee members today on hearings and legislative language that could stop an escalation of troops, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), a member of Murtha's subcommittee.
Those plans could attach so many conditions and benchmarks to the funds that it would be all but impossible to spend the money without running afoul of the Congress. "Twenty-one thousand five hundred troops ought to have 21,500 strings attached to them," said House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.).
Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Pelosi, said Democratic leaders have made no decision to hold back funds, but he added: "We are not going to give the president a blank check. We will subject any proposal to escalate the war to harsh scrutiny, and we will set benchmarks he has to attain to get that money."
Although Democratic leaders offered a united front last night in their response to Bush's speech, they have long struggled to forge consensus on the details of an alternative policy. Democrats have widely divergent views of the timing of any future withdrawal of U.S. forces and differ on whether there should be a timetable for bringing all troops home. Now in the majority, they will be challenged in the months ahead to outline a policy that will achieve the twin goals of ending U.S. involvement in Iraq without leaving that country in greater chaos.
Democratic reaction to Bush's prime-time speech last night was overwhelmingly negative, setting the stage for a series of legislative moves that will play out over the next few months.
"By calling for the rapid escalation of American troops in Iraq, the president rebuffed his commanders, thumbed his nose at the Baker-Hamilton commission and, worst of all, ignored the will of the American people," Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, said after the speech.
Bush had hoped to persuade congressional leaders to withhold judgment until last night's speech, meeting with more than 125 lawmakers in the run-up to the speech, including House leaders yesterday. But rank-and-file Democrats were unwilling to wait before laying the groundwork to thwart what they call an escalation.
House Democratic leaders have said they will not use the power of the purse in any way that would harm troops in the field, a position that had run afoul of the party's liberal activists. Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), a member of the Armed Services Committee, said that pledge is being calibrated to apply only to troops in the field now.
Tauscher said Democratic policy must "satisfy the American people that we're putting a speed bump in front of the president that will actually hold," adding: "The White House is used to doing business on their own, but they're realizing things have changed. This is vastly different."
House Democrats also expect to introduce soon a resolution of disapproval for Bush's new policy but have moved farther than Senate Democrats toward an outright funding confrontation with the White House.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) called Tuesday for the administration to ask for renewed authorization from Congress before sending additional troops to Iraq. "I don't believe there's a single member of the U.S. Senate that would have voted for the authorization bill in October 2002 if they thought the authorization was going to commit American forces to be involved in a civil war," he said yesterday.
But Democratic strategists said that, at this point, there is limited support for the Kennedy proposal.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), who with Pelosi co-signed a letter to the president last week urging him not to send more troops to Iraq, has begun meetings with other senior senators, including Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to develop specific responses to Bush's new policy.
Antiwar activists continued to press congressional Democrats to block Bush's plans. "The bottom line is that when voters elected the Democrats, they did that on the promise that the Democrats would lead the country out of the war," said Eli Pariser, director of the MoveOn political action committee. "Democrats need to fulfill on that promise, and they're going to."
Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.