As Iraq Exit Plan Arrives, Democrats' Rift Remains

House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), center, flanked by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., meets with reporters outside the White House.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), center, flanked by Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of Calif., meets with reporters outside the White House. (By Haraz N. Ghanbari -- Associated Press)
By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, March 8, 2007

Even in her conservative Kansas district, calls and letters to freshman House Democrat Nancy Boyda show a constituency overwhelmingly ready for U.S. troops to come home from Iraq.

Yet as the House nears a legislative showdown on the war, Boyda finds herself wracked with doubts. She is convinced that Congress must intervene to stop the war, but is fearful of the chaos that a quick U.S. pullout could prompt. "Congress has an obligation to do something," Boyda said. But she is unsure what to do, worried about anything that "affects commanders on the ground."

This morning House Democrats, fractured as a group and, with many members such as Boyda torn over how to proceed on Iraq, will meet to learn the details of a new proposal cobbled together by party leaders last night, which calls for bringing troops home early next year while removing remaining troops from combat by October 2008.

But it is far from certain they will succeed in bridging the rifts that have opened inside a passionately antiwar and yet determinedly cautious new congressional majority. "It's much easier to express an opinion to a pollster than it is to formulate effective policy on something as intractable as Iraq," Rep. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) said.

The plan worked out by party leaders may be a significant gamble for the Democratic majority, which owes much of its success in November's elections to voters' unrest with the war. And it is already posing a major leadership test for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), who for weeks has unsuccessfully tried to broker a compromise between her base of support, the party's progressives, and members from Republican-leaning districts who do not want to place too many restrictions on President Bush's authority as commander-in-chief.

Because Republicans have stood remarkably united against the Democratic effort, the loss of just a handful of Democratic votes could lead to an embarrassing public defeat. At least a dozen of the 43 conservative "Blue Dogs," who worry about the "soft-on-defense" stigma that has haunted the party, could bolt if Democrats move toward withdrawal too aggressively. But dozens of antiwar Democrats say they cannot support legislation that is too meek.

"There's a fine line that I hope will not be blurred between micromanaging the war and assuring accountability," said Rep. Stephanie Herseth (S.D.), a Blue Dog leader. "I don't think we should be overreacting to public opinion polls."

But antiwar liberals find such temporizing infuriating, seeing the Democratic win in November's midterm elections as a clear mandate to end the war.

"It's hard to put myself in their place," Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said of her party's conservatives. "It's clear that on Nov. 7, voters said, 'Democrats, we think you will be bold. You will change course for us in Iraq.' "

With such strong sentiments, the past three days in the House have been agonizing, Democrats say.

Yesterday, Pelosi's leadership suite was a hive of activity, as House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) buzzed in and out to check with Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (Wis.), Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (Mo.) and Appropriations defense subcommittee Chairman John P. Murtha (Pa.) on the latest language of a deal.

They then went to check the votes. Clyburn focused on the Congressional Black Caucus, Hoyer the Blue Dogs and Pelosi the rebellious liberals who helped lift her to power. The deal is a long way to passage, but the pressure is building, especially on Pelosi.

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