By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 23, 2007
Liberal opposition to a $124 billion war spending bill broke last night, when leaders of the antiwar Out of Iraq Caucus pledged to Democratic leaders that they will not block the measure, which sets timelines for bringing U.S. troops home.
The acquiescence of the liberals probably means that the House will pass a binding measure today that, for the first time, would establish tough readiness standards for the deployment of combat forces and an Aug. 31, 2008, deadline for their removal from Iraq.
A Senate committee also passed a spending bill yesterday setting a goal of bringing troops home within a year. The developments mark congressional Democrats' first real progress in putting legislative pressure on President Bush to withdraw U.S. forces.
Even more than the conservative Democrats leery of appearing to micromanage the war, House liberals have been the main obstacle to leadership efforts to put a timeline on the withdrawal of U.S. forces. They have complained that the proposal would not bring troops home fast enough. Their opposition has riven the antiwar movement, split the Democratic base and been the main stumbling block to the legislation, which had originally been scheduled for a vote yesterday.
As debate began on the bill yesterday, members of the antiwar caucus and party leaders held a backroom meeting in which House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) made a final plea to the group, asking it to deliver at least four votes when the roll is called. The members promised 10.
"I find myself in the excruciating position of being asked to choose between voting for funding for the war or establishing timelines to end it," said Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.). "I have struggled with this decision, but I finally decided that, while I cannot betray my conscience, I cannot stand in the way of passing a measure that puts a concrete end date on this unnecessary war."
That was the message of Democratic leaders: This is the best deal they could make, and it is better than no deal at all.
At a meeting of Democratic vote counters yesterday, House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) quoted the Yogi Berra line "When you reach a fork in the road, take it."
"We're at the fork in the road," Emanuel said.
Shortly after, Out of Iraq Caucus leaders decided to break the pact that members had made to stick together against the bill. "We have released people who have been pained by all this," said Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.). "We told them we don't want them to be in a position of undermining Nancy's speakership."
To many in the movement against the Iraq war, the liberal opposition to the bill was as maddening as it was mystifying.
"You really have two options here: One is that you can vote for a change of course here and say we're going to find a way out of Iraq, or, two, you can vote against it and hand George Bush a victory," said Jon Soltz, a veteran of the Iraq war and co-founder of VoteVets.org, a group that opposes the war. "It doesn't make sense to me. George Bush got us into the war. They have challenged him on everything. Why would they give him this victory now?" he asked, referring to the liberals.
When Democratic leaders first spoke of attaching strings to Bush's $100 billion war request, their biggest fear was that they would lose their conservatives. Since then, the bill has actually grown more assertive in its efforts to bring the troops home. Initial efforts to tie the deployment of combat forces to tough standards for resting, equipping and training the troops have been bolstered by binding benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. If the Iraqis fall short, troop withdrawals could begin as early as July 1. In any case, the withdrawals would have to begin in March 2008, with most combat forces out by Aug. 31, 2008.
Even the more cautious Senate Democrats have moved toward setting a troop-withdrawal date. The Senate Appropriations Committee yesterday approved a $122 billion version of a spending bill that would require troops to begin leaving Iraq within four months of passage and would set a nonbinding goal of March 31, 2008, for the removal of combat troops.
To the surprise of many antiwar activists, House Democratic leaders have been able to keep their conservative Blue Dog members largely onboard as they ratcheted up the bill's language. But with Republicans virtually united in opposition, Democrats can afford only 15 defections.
Bush and congressional Republicans have done their best to exploit the divisions, repeatedly mentioning that the Democrats are not united.
"Congress needs to get their business done quickly, get the moneys we've requested funded and let our folks on the ground do the job," the president said yesterday in demanding the funds with no strings attached.
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned yesterday that if Congress does not pass the supplemental war funding bill by April 15, the Army may have to slow the training of units slated to deploy to Iraq and Afghanistan, or halt the repair of equipment. If the funding is delayed until May, he said, the tours of Army units in Iraq and Afghanistan might have to be extended "because other units are not ready to take their place."
The administration's stand has only increased the anguish in the antiwar movement. The liberal activists of MoveOn.org opted this week to back the funding bill, but the decision split the group's members and prompted accusations that the MoveOn leadership had stacked the endorsement vote. Win Without War, an umbrella group against the Iraq war, met Tuesday to decide whether to endorse the bill, but the divisions were too deep to bridge.
David Sirota, a former House Appropriations Committee aide who is now an uncompromising blogger, dashed off a memo to progressive lawmakers Wednesday night, imploring them to "accept the congressional world as it is right now," not to insist on the world as they wish it to be, and vote for the bill.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.