Democrats Split on Iraq Bill

By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 21, 2007

One of the Democrats' chief designated vote counters, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), is actively working against the Iraq war spending bill. The leadership's senior chief deputy whip, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), spoke passionately against it on the House floor. And one of the whip organization's regional representatives, Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), is implacably opposed.

The disarray in the House whipping operation ahead of tomorrow's expected vote on the bill is putting a harsh spotlight on House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (D-S.C.), who has the task of rounding up the 218 votes needed to pass the $124 billion measure, but who has not even kept his organization in line.

"There's only one test, and that will be whether we get 218 on the board on Thursday," said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), who predicted that Clyburn will come through with the votes.

But the failings of his organization are resurrecting fears that the courtly Southern gentleman is simply too nice for a job known for head-banging, punishment and retribution.

To be sure, House Democratic leaders appear to be making progress toward securing the votes to pass a $124 billion emergency war spending bill that would establish strict readiness standards for deploying combat forces and set a firm deadline of Aug. 31, 2008, to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq. Clyburn and other House Democratic leaders locked down two critical Democratic converts -- one liberal, one conservative -- yesterday.

At a closed-door gathering of the House Democratic Caucus, Rep. Jan Schakowsky (D-Ill.), a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and an early opponent of the bill, announced that she had changed her position and will support it when it comes to a vote.

After the caucus meeting, Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats, said that he, too, will vote for the bill. "The alternative is an open-ended bleeding of our blood and treasure, with no end in sight and no pressure on the Iraqi government to make the changes necessary," he said.

But their late conversions only pointed up the difficulties in the whip organization. Schakowsky, like Waters, is one of nine chief deputy whips, and her early statements of opposition had stunned leaders. She pledged yesterday to press liberal members of the House Out of Iraq Caucus and Progressive Caucus to fall into line.

Tanner, the Blue Dog representative on the chief deputy whip's team, had been undecided until yesterday morning. Now that he is on board, he hastened to add that he is not about to start leaning on his Blue Dog colleagues. "I don't ask people to vote on the leadership's behalf, particularly on a vote like this," he said.

Kristie Greco, a spokeswoman for Clyburn, said the Democrats' whip organization is broad and diverse, precisely so that a few defections over policy would not affect the vote-counting operation. The days of lock-step discipline under the threat of retribution went out with the Republican majority, she said.

But defections have consequences. With Woolsey adamantly opposed to the bill, Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Calif.), a fellow Western regional whip, has to do the work of two. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.) said leaders are pulling in members from outside the whip organization, handing out the names of undecided Democrats to anyone willing to step in.

Confronted yesterday about his balky whip organization, Clyburn was all smiles. Lewis is a pacifist who has earned, in the trenches of the civil rights movement, the right to oppose any additional funding for the war, Clyburn said. Besides, he added, Lewis will not actively work against the bill.

But Lewis has not been silent. In a speech Monday night on the House floor, he made his case as convincingly as he could.

"As a nation, can we hear the words of Gandhi, so simple, so true -- that it's either nonviolence or nonexistence? Can we hear the words of Martin Luther King Jr., saying that we must learn to live together as brothers and sisters or perish as fools?" Lewis asked. "Tonight, I must make it plain and clear, that as a human being, as a citizen of the world, as a citizen of America, as a member of Congress, and as an individual committed to a world at peace with itself, I will not and cannot vote for another dollar or another dime to support this war."

Clyburn also insisted that Waters was not working against the bill, an assertion Waters herself contradicted just minutes earlier in conversations with reporters.

Clyburn may not be taking action against his team members, but other party leaders almost certainly will, aides said yesterday. Pelosi plans to speak to Lewis as soon as possible, if not to win his vote, at least to secure his silence. The speaker held pointed discussions this week with the leaders of the Appropriations Committee, making it clear that she has the power to determine the popular panel's membership. That was a clear indication that she might move against Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), an antiwar activist and the only Democrat to vote against the war spending bill in committee last week.

As for Waters, action may not come until after the House votes on the Iraq bill, but aides close to Pelosi made it clear that there will be consequences for a chief deputy whip working against the leadership she had sworn to help on tough votes.

"Let's just say, the speaker has taken notice," one aide said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company