By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, May 27, 2007
After a contentious, three-month battle with the White House over Iraq, congressional Democrats limped out of Washington Friday with their sights trained on July for the next round -- but antiwar activists are spoiling for a fight far sooner than that.
The Democratic rank-and-file left for the week-long Memorial Day break with a slate of talking points on Congress's accomplishments whose top bullet point boasts of "working responsibly to end the war." In the past 100 days, virtually every Democrat has voted to demand troop withdrawals, and a majority of them effectively voted Thursday night to cut off funds for the war.
But to antiwar groups, the only tally that mattered was Congress's easy approval of a $120 billion war spending bill that was stripped of timelines for troop withdrawals. A majority of House Democrats may have voted against it, but the Democratic leadership in both chambers facilitated its passage.
"Voters elected this Congress to lead the country out of the mess in Iraq," said Eli Pariser, executive director of the liberal activist group MoveOn.org Political Action. "We expect great political fallout for all of the representatives -- Republican and Democrat -- who stood in the way."
Democratic leaders argue that for the first time Congress had required the Bush administration to track military and political progress in Iraq in 18 prescribed areas and to report back to Congress as soon as July. Some nonmilitary aid could be jeopardized if the Iraqi government fails to make progress.
The funding bill's passage "was the start of a whole new direction in Iraq," declared House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.). "I think that the president's policy is going to begin to unravel now."
But that message was undermined by her vote against a measure she herself had dismissed as "a fig leaf" and "a token." Pelosi praised the 140 Democrats who voted against the bill.
She said the "no" votes communicated "No more funding."
But the praise struck a dissonant note, since she was flanked by House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.), House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) and House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), all of whom had voted for the funds.
"There are 232 Democrats in the House of Representatives," Hoyer said. "There are 232 Democrats that believed that our policies in Iraq are failing."
Activists declared they would remain focused on Republicans but would hold Democrats accountable. Television advertisements, financed by an antiwar coalition, will target Sens. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), both up for reelection next year. And MoveOn organizers said Democrats also are likely to see skirmishes in their districts. MoveOn asked its members Friday to send Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) protest letters in the form of tea bags, reminders that he had called the Iraq bill "weak tea" before he voted for it.
"This is not partisan anymore. This is not about staying away from Democrats to make them look good or attacking all Republicans to make them look bad," said Susan Shaer, co-chairman of the Win Without War coalition. "We don't care who you are or whether we usually like you. This vote was wrong."
Such sentiment is only being compounded by Democratic presidential candidates who are reveling in their opposition to the war funding bill as they appeal to core Democratic voters. Former senator John Edwards (N.C.) established a Web site, http://www.supportthetroopsendthewar.com, to encourage voters to mobilize during Memorial Day weekend.
And when Republicans hit front-running Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) for their votes against the war spending bill, the Democrats hit right back.
"Governor Romney and Senator McCain are still supporting a war that has cost us thousands of lives, made us less safe in the world, and resulted in a resurgence of al-Qaeda," Obama said, after Mitt Romney, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) and the Republican National Committee all accused him of abandoning the troops. "It is time to end this war."
Eager to address other issues, such as soaring energy prices, and to complete unfinished business on homeland security and ethics bills, House leaders hope to give Iraq a rest. Chairman John P. Murtha (Pa.) of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense plans to strip Iraq issues from the 2008 defense spending bill when it comes up in July and prepare a separate war funding measure for consideration in September, when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, is to report to Congress on the war's progress.
But the Senate will return to the war in late June, when it is scheduled to take up a defense policy bill. The Armed Services Committee released the legislation Friday, and although it includes no Iraq withdrawal language, Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.) said Democrats would seek to require troops to begin leaving within 120 days of the bill's passage
"The Iraqi leaders will realize that their future is in their hands only when they are forced into that recognition," Levin said.
Another Senate war bill, expected to be introduced early next month, would adopt the Iraq Study Group recommendations as official policy. The group was headed by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).
The legislation, which has gained bipartisan backing, would establish conditions for a continued U.S. military presence in Iraq and require specific steps to be taken by the Iraqi government. The list is similar to the benchmarks in the funding bill, but more detailed in its requirements.
Co-sponsors include Democrats Blanche Lincoln (Ark.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.) and Republicans Lamar Alexander (Tenn.) and John E. Sununu (N.H.). Bush spoke favorably last week of the study group report after more or less ignoring it when it was released in December. He said then that he views the report as a framework for finding common ground with Democrats, and praised a provision that would shift U.S. forces to more of a training role.