A Voice Against Presidential War-Making Now Leads a Chorus
As Democrats brace themselves for yet another showdown with President Bush over war funding, one legislator who stood alone for a long time is now finding a crowd milling around her.
Three days after the Sept. 11 attacks, Barbara Lee, a liberal Democrat from Oakland, Calif., was the lone member of Congress to vote against the resolution authorizing the president to use force in pursuing those responsible.
When she walked off the House floor, her colleagues told her she had made a mistake and should change her vote, given the emotionally charged environment at the time. She was deluged with hostile mail, and she needed security because of death threats.
"It was horrible," she recalled this week, sitting in the serene, elegant Rayburn Room of the Capitol. "A really, really bad time. But what you have to do is keep moving forward."
These days, Lee finds herself at the often-tense negotiating table as Democratic leaders, trying to end the war in Iraq, propose a new round of legislation to fund the war yet also require the administration to set benchmarks that would determine when to bring troops home.
Although Lee would vastly prefer a timeline for withdrawal -- which Bush has already vetoed -- she believes any conditions for funding are better than none.
"Again, do we give the president another blank check to continue this occupation and civil war, or do we tell him that this is the beginning of the end?" she asks.
Don't get her wrong; she says she will never vote for any measure that funds this war, including the one that could come for a vote today. But she is credited by Democrats with being able to balance principle and pragmatism.
Democrats say that she was largely responsible for breaking the stalemate between leadership and antiwar liberals on the most recent funding vote, brokering an eleventh-hour compromise that saved House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) from an embarrassing defeat. In exchange for inserting timelines for withdrawing troops, she and two other California Democrats who oppose the war, Rep. Maxine Waters and Rep. Lynn Woolsey, cleared the way for other liberals to support the bill. The trio got a standing ovation from the caucus.
"I weighed in," says Lee, adding that there's "no way" she wanted to see Pelosi suffer the defeat.
Lee, 60, is soft-spoken and is no lefty flame thrower. The daughter of a veteran of two wars (whom she still calls "Colonel"), she says she is not a pacifist. But she felt strongly in 2001, as she does now, that the president should not be given unfettered authority to wage war -- a position many more of her colleagues are embracing these days.
She calls the Democrats' demands an "excellent first step" and "a signal to the American people that Congress wants this war to end."