As Iraq Exit Plan Arrives, Democrats' Rift Remains

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.

"I don't know if it's the first big test for her, but it certainly is a big test," said Rep. Dennis Moore (Kan.), a Blue Dog leader.

Under the deal, to be formally drafted by the Appropriations Committee next week, Congress would institute the same tough benchmarks for the Iraqi government that Bush detailed in a national address in January. Under those benchmarks, the Iraqi government would have to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November, and adopt and implement oil-revenue-sharing legislation.

The government would have to spend $10 billion of Iraq's money on job-creating reconstruction and infrastructure projects; hold provincial elections this year; liberalize laws that purged Baath Party members from the government; and establish a fairer process for amending the Iraqi constitution. Bush would have to certify the benchmarks are met by year's end. If not, troops would begin leaving Iraq next spring, with all troops out of combat by the fall, a senior Democratic aide said.

The pot would be sweetened with extra money for military and veterans' health care, the war in Afghanistan, troop training and equipment, and new funds for Hurricane Katrina relief. The specifics include $450 million for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder and another $450 million for traumatic brain injuries, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), an Appropriations Committee member.

With that money, Moran said, some Republicans will have to join the Democrats. "We will have the votes," Moran said. "We have to join together here, and I think it will pass quite easily."

But skepticism remains, especially among Democrats from conservative districts.

"It's still micromanaging the war," Rep. Dan Boren (D-Okla.) said.

Conservative Democrats fear the charge, still lodged by some Vietnam veterans, that that war could have been won had the politicians not intervened. More than anything else, many Democrats want to leave Bush responsible for ending the war he started.

"The war is the issue, but it's the president's issue, not ours," Boren said.

Last night, six prominent liberal Democrats issued a statement that said: "We have had a constructive dialogue with members of our party's leadership regarding the upcoming supplemental debate. However, at this time, we have not reached any final agreement."

Woolsey is leading a brewing revolt among dozens of Democrats who say they will vote only for a war spending bill that unambiguously ends the war. House leaders, cognizant of conservative concerns, had moved to temper another element of the proposal they worked out -- troop-deployment restrictions, pushed by Murtha, that Bush could waive if it is in "the national interest." But in so doing, they stoked a revolt on the left, with the leaders of that revolt being Pelosi loyalists, who say on this issue they cannot be swayed by the speaker's personal appeals.

In the face of such intransigence, Democratic leaders hope to quell the revolt by granting liberals a vote on an amendment to end the war immediately. Hoyer said the leaders hope liberals will then support final passage of the spending bill, even if their amendment is defeated.

But there are no guarantees. Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a co-chairwoman of the Out of Iraq Caucus, said no deal has been struck, although negotiations continue. Murtha and other Pelosi loyalists worked Waters especially hard because if she is swayed, other liberals will follow.

Pelosi's allies say that at the end of the day, she will bring her caucus into line. There is simply too much at stake, said Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a Blue Dog close to the speaker. "Don't underestimate Nancy Pelosi," he said.

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