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Murtha Stumbles on Iraq Funding Curbs

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By Jonathan Weisman and Lyndsey Layton
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 25, 2007

The plan was bold: By tying President Bush's $100 billion war request to strict standards of troop safety and readiness, Democrats believed they could grab hold of Iraq war policy while forcing Republicans to defend sending troops into battle without the necessary training or equipment.

But a botched launch by the plan's author, Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), has united Republicans and divided Democrats, sending the latter back to the drawing board just a week before scheduled legislative action, a score of House Democratic lawmakers said last week.

"If this is going to be legislation that's crafted in such a way that holds back resources from our troops, that is a non-starter, an absolute non-starter," declared Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats.

Murtha's credentials as a Marine combat veteran, a critic of the war and close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) were supposed to make him an unassailable spokesman for Democratic war policy. Instead, he has become a lightning rod for criticism from Republicans and members of his own party.

Freshman Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired Navy admiral who was propelled into politics by the Iraq war, said Murtha could still salvage elements of his strategy, but Sestak, an outspoken war opponent, is "a bit wary" of a proposal that would influence military operations.

"I was recently in the military, and I have to speak from that experience," Sestak said.

The story of Murtha's star-crossed plan illustrates the Democratic Party's deep divisions over the Iraq war and how the new House majority has yet to establish firm control over Congress. From the beginning, Murtha acted on his own to craft a complicated legislative strategy on the war, without consulting fellow Democrats. When he chose to roll out the details on a liberal, antiwar Web site on Feb. 15, he caught even Pelosi by surprise while infuriating Democrats from conservative districts.

Then for an entire week, as members of Congress returned home for a recess, Murtha refused to speak further. Democratic leaders failed to step into the vacuum, and Republicans relentlessly attacked a plan they called a strategy to slowly bleed the war of troops and funds. By the end of the recess, Murtha's once promising strategy was in tatters.

Tom Andrews, a former House member and antiwar activist who helped Murtha with his Internet rollout, fumed: "The issue to me is, what is the state of the backbone of the Democratic Party? How will they respond to this counterattack? Republicans are throwing touchdown passes on this because the Democrats aren't even on the field."

Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida Democrat and deputy whip, said party leaders are working on several Iraq proposals and that Murtha's may survive. Finding consensus will be difficult but not impossible, she said. "This is a multi-step process," she cautioned. "At least we're debating the topic, not blindly following the president."

Megan Grote, Murtha's spokeswoman, said the congressman will not discuss Iraq policy until a news conference scheduled for the end of the week.

Murtha, 74, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, still holds a unique position on war policy, stemming from his roots as a veteran, his close ties to the uniformed military and his long-standing alliance with Pelosi. When he first publicly called for ending the war in 2005, he commanded the attention the party's left and right wings.


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