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Securing Iraq Votes, One at a Time
House Democratic Leaders Methodically Build Support for War Plan

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 11, 2007

Rep. Jerry Nadler was the only lawmaker at a meeting of all House Democrats on Thursday to stand up and declare that he could not support a compromise plan to fund the Iraq war with a timeline to end the conflict. So some party leaders had written him off even as he joined House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for a private meeting.

In the confines of the speaker's suite, Nadler (N.Y.) could be specific. He sought assurances from Pelosi (Calif.) that President Bush would be compelled to withdraw all troops from combat by August 2008, as the legislation proposed. He wanted to know: "What is the legal compulsion to follow this timeline?"

A Pelosi aide disappeared from the meeting for a few minutes and returned with a few lines of legislative text offering what Nadler wanted to hear: Once troops are out of Iraq, no money would be available to put them back in, outside the narrow exceptions of targeted counterterrorism operations, embassy protection and efforts to train Iraqis.

"You know," Nadler said after a pause, "I think that's okay."

Nadler's conversion was a sign of the member-by-member, slow but deliberate headway Democratic leaders say they are making in their efforts to cobble together the 218 supporters they need to pass one of the most consequential pieces of defense legislation in decades, a $105 billion war-funding bill that would impose strict standards of rest and readiness for the military, establish clear benchmarks for the government of Iraq and set a timeline to end U.S. involvement in the war.

Through closed-door meetings, pep rallies, private phone conversations and horse trading, Democratic leaders are moving outward from the 180 solid votes in the party's political center to win the votes on the party's left and right that will be needed to pass the bill later this month.

For Nadler's vote, it meant a provision for enforcement. For the backing of Rep. Jim McDermott (D-Wash.), it was language prohibiting an attack on Iran without congressional authorization. For the support of Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.), a National Guardsman who trained troops for Iraq, it was the inclusion of a waiver that the president could invoke to get around strict standards of troop readiness.

The cajoling will continue tomorrow as lawmakers return to Washington and the legislation is readied for markup later in the week. But there are roadblocks: Rep. Allen Boyd (D-Fla.) said some conservatives are withholding their support until the language McDermott wanted is removed.

As Democratic leaders balance those demands, the calculus is fairly straightforward, said one conservative Democrat involved in the process. Leaders are counting on winning all but a dozen of the 43 conservative Blue Dog Democrats and all but a dozen of the 75 or so members of the liberal Out of Iraq Caucus. Then, Democratic leaders are hoping, enough Republicans will break ranks to put them over the top.

By last week's end, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said, they had secured about 200 votes.

"I think what you're seeing here is the birth of governance of the new majority," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), a Pelosi confidante. "And I think it's actually working."

But the last 18 votes will not be easy. That point was brought home Thursday morning, during the closed-door meeting in which the legislation was detailed for Democratic members. As Pelosi gave her pitch, Reps. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), Barbara Lee (Calif.), Lloyd Doggett (Tex.) and Nadler stood up to leave for a news conference of their own. After an uncomfortable pause, Pelosi growled that she wished Democrats would be courteous enough to hear her out before talking to the media. Nadler sat down. The rest walked out.

Democratic aides concede that some party members, including Woolsey, Lee and Doggett, are all but lost. But they are not giving up.

"There's nothing guaranteed in life, but I feel very good," Emanuel said.

The leadership initially focused its attention on the Blue Dogs, massaging the legislation to address their concerns that Congress not appear to micromanage the war by imposing restrictions on resting and training troops. And Pelosi reached out to them personally, making a surprise appearance as they gathered in House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer's office to discuss the legislation.

It was Hoyer (D-Md.) who had the sharpest words. Several conservative Democrats have suggested that the House's role in Iraq should be confined, at least for now, to oversight hearings and investigations into the conduct of the war. "You can't have accountability without consequences," Hoyer warned, and Pelosi nodded her approval.

With the conservatives' attention on the troop language, leaders could win over liberals on a separate track: a timeline for withdrawing troops. Although some of the most ardent Out of Iraq Caucus members, who want to bring troops home immediately, are considered lost, Pelosi and her leadership team have made inroads with others.

A meeting in Pelosi's office Thursday stretched from 1:30 to 4 p.m., as 35 to 40 Democratic liberals hashed over the legislation with Pelosi, House Appropriations Committee Chairman David R. Obey (D-Wis.) and Pelosi's political consigliere, Rep. George Miller (D-Calif.).

Miller's pitch was blunt: If the liberals team up with Republicans to bring down the Iraq bill, Democratic leaders would have no choice but to come back with a spending bill that simply funds the war, without any policy restrictions. It would pass easily, with Republican votes and the support of many Democrats.

That night, Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (D-N.Y.), an Out of Iraq Caucus member, joined other liberals for a meeting in a basement room of the Capitol. With the zeal of the converted, Hinchey told his colleagues, "If we cannot pass a bill like this, the alternative is far worse, a straightforward 'Here's the money, Mr. President, spend it any way you want.' "

"This solution is not perfect," he said he told the group. "But it's a hell of a lot better than anything else we can get."

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