New Perspective, New Unity Among Hill Democrats on Iraq

By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, March 31, 2007

President Bush continues to warn that Democratic demands for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq are reckless, even dangerous. But for the first time since the conflict began four years ago, Democrats are not flinching in their opposition.

Every time Congress has voted on Iraq this year, Democrats have picked up a little more support to set timelines for bringing troops home. The momentum culminated this week when the 48 Democrats present in the Senate, joined by two Republicans, voted for a target date for troop withdrawals.

Much of the gain for the Democrats came from their most conservative members. Many of them had refused to support a withdrawal date less than a year ago. Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), for instance, rejected the Senate's March 31, 2008, withdrawal goal in a resolution voted on earlier this month but reversed his position this week by supporting the $122 billion war-funding package with the goal attached.

Nelson prefers conditions for staying, as opposed to terms for leaving, and to win his vote fellow Democrats inserted a set of nonbinding benchmarks for the Iraqi government, an approach that Nelson had been advocating for two years. "When you look at the balance, I think we made major progress," Nelson said.

Next week, House and Senate leaders will begin negotiations on a final spending bill that is certain to include some withdrawal language. Bush has vowed to veto the legislation if the Democrats follow through.

The effort to force Bush to change direction in Iraq began in late 2005, when the Senate, in a 79 to 19 vote, passed legislation that called for a "significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty" in 2006. Last June, Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) tried to amend a defense authorization bill to force that transition, with troop withdrawals to start by the end of 2006 but with no deadline for completing the task. The effort was rejected 60 to 39.

A second amendment offered by Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), which sought to bring troops home within a year, failed 86 to 13. Around the same time in the House, a Republican-backed endorsement of Bush's war policy won 42 Democratic votes.

This week, the Iraq spending bill, with the withdrawal goal attached, passed the Senate 51 to 47. And just 14 House Democrats defected in a 218 to 212 vote on March 23 that set a firm Aug. 31, 2008, deadline for bringing troops home.

The changes marked a transformation in thinking among many Democrats.

"Last summer, I didn't want to do anything to hurt the morale of our troops," said Rep. Dennis Cardoza (Calif.), a conservative Blue Dog Democrat who voted last June for the House Republican resolution but who sided with his party this month. "At this point, we're beyond morale. We're in serious jeopardy, and the president seems to have no clue how to get us out of this."

Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), a Blue Dog leader who also voted with the GOP last June, said he has come to the realization that U.S. troops will never be able to win in Iraq because Bush's definition of victory keeps changing. Voters in Arkansas are tired of the shifting justifications, Ross said. "It's our job to reflect our constituencies, and my constituents have moved a lot in the past year," he said.

Sen. Bill Nelson (Fla.), one of the Democrats who opposed the Levin-Reed measure last June, pointed to the December release of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group's report, which endorsed a pullout of combat forces by 2008. The commission, headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), gave Democrats a framework, Nelson said. "A lot has changed," he noted.

Even Democrats who question the policies enshrined in the two war-spending bills said they were compelled to make a statement. Rep. Howard L. Berman (Calif.), another Democrat who voted with the Republicans last June, said he found plenty to grouse about in the House bill. For one, the legislation would lay down benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet but would require U.S. troops to leave even if the goals are reached.

"That doesn't make any sense," Berman said.

But, he added, "there comes a point in time, and we might be at that point, when this might well be a futile effort, and it's the more sensible approach to make a tactical retreat and fight again at another date in another place." And that was why he voted for the House bill.

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