Democrats' Struggle to Change Course in Iraq Has Produced Much Debate, Little Action

By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 10, 2007

On the morning of Dec. 18, 2006, the phone lines in the office of incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid suddenly lit up -- a warning signal that the coming debate over Iraq could prove a perilous exercise for congressional Democrats.

Though an official announcement was weeks away, it was already clear that, the election returns notwithstanding, President Bush was preparing to send more troops into Iraq, not getting ready to pull them out. The new Senate leader, asked the day before about his reaction to those reports, sounded mildly receptive. "If . . . it's part of a program to get us out of there as indicated by this time next year, then sure, I'll go along with it," Reid said.

Mobilized by MoveOn.org, one of the antiwar groups that helped the Democrats retake the House and Senate the previous month, liberal war opponents registered their outrage over Reid's conciliatory words.

The Nevada Democrat quickly offered a clarification -- in a posting, fittingly enough, on a liberal Web site. The party's position began to harden into solid opposition, putting the administration on notice that Democrats were determined to try to force a change in Bush's policy. The problem was, no one knew or agreed on just how to go about it. Democrats began their fight against what came to be called the surge with public opinion on their side, but with virtually no real weapons to force Bush to change, given the realities of a 51-49 Senate majority.

In the past eight months, there have been multiple resolutions opposing the troop increase, numerous proposals to establish timetables for withdrawal, plans to repeal the original congressional authorization that gave Bush the power to go to war and even an effort to cut off funds for the conflict. But Democrats have not succeeded in forcing a single, substantial change in the president's policy, and they have watched Congress's approval rating, as measured by the Gallup Poll, slide to the lowest recorded since Gallup began measuring in 1974.

"What we have done is made it very difficult for Republicans to continue to hide on whether they agree with the president or not on Iraq," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), describing the political gain Democrats think they have achieved since the beginning of the year. "Whether or not they'll take that final step and actually break by actually overriding a veto, if we ever get to that, or break by supporting very tough language that constricts his movement, remains to be seen."

The next and perhaps final chapter of the war debate this year will begin to play out today as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker give a report to the House about the military and political results of the troop buildup. It is not clear what, if anything, will emerge from Congress from that debate, given the acrid partisanship that has surrounded the Iraq battle all year.

In the Senate, the crucible of the debate, many Republicans have grown increasingly skeptical of the president's policy, though they are unwilling to go as far Democrats. And Democratic leaders, determined to end the war on their terms and under intense pressure from their antiwar base, have refused to yield enough ground to accommodate them. Every time an effort failed, Democrats came back with something tougher, until by the August recess, all Congress had produced was another round of war funding, with virtually no strings attached.

In recent weeks, Reid has talked of striking a more conciliatory tone, and he has said that to bring Republicans to the table, Democrats will even reconsider their demand for a fixed end date. But he said he has no regrets about the debate so far. "If we hadn't done something, nothing would have been done," he said. "I think we've done the right thing by pushing out here."

Sen. Gordon Smith (Ore.) is a moderate Republican who split from Bush on Iraq in December. But he has voted for the Democrats' rigid withdrawal terms with a heavy heart.

Like his constituents, Smith yearns for something different and, so far, elusive -- a way out that unites Congress and the country. "I think the people would follow a light at the end of the tunnel," he said, "as long as it's not an oncoming train."

A Debate in Three Arenas

The debate over Iraq has played out in three arenas: the Senate, the House and the presidential campaign.

Reid, who has emerged in recent months as an impassioned opponent of the war, anchored the strategy of Democrats in the Senate. In the House, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) presided over a far more aggressive caucus, split between passionate out-of-Iraq liberals and more pragmatic opponents of the war looking for language that could break the Senate barrier and reach the president's desk.

Both leaders took office committed to trying to force Bush to change policy, but with no clear sense of their chances of succeeding. Their hope was that through a combination of legislative maneuvering, public opinion and the continuing violence in Iraq, enough Republicans would break to overcome a White House veto.

The Democratic presidential candidates have functioned as a separate block and have used their Senate roles to court likely caucus and primary voters, the overwhelming majority of whom strongly oppose the war. Their intramural battles became a running sideshow -- both the competition between Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.) and the efforts by the rest of the field, except Biden, to push the front-runners further left.

Pressing on all three arenas were the antiwar groups, led by MoveOn.org, that acted as a kind of Greek chorus, demanding confrontation and urging Reid to surrender no ground.

Because of a Senate rule requiring 60 votes to shut off debate and 67 votes to overturn a veto, Reid faced an almost impossible challenge. Even if all his troops stood together, he started with just 49 votes: One member of the caucus, Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.), was absent because of a massive brain hemorrhage, while another, Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), was a strong supporter of the president and newly independent after his 2006 reelection.

Five days before the president's speech on Jan. 10 announcing the troop increase, Reid and Pelosi fired their opening shot in the battle with Bush. "After nearly four years of combat, tens of thousands of U.S. casualties and over 300 billion dollars, it is time to bring the war to a close," they said in a joint statement. A procession of Democrats flowed into Reid's small conference room next to his office to share their ideas. The visitors included Sens. Clinton, Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.) and John F. Kerry (Mass.), who had not yet announced he would not run for president in 2008.

Biden had made his opposition clear on Dec. 26 -- an effort that he said later was designed to make it difficult for other Democrats to equivocate as the fight opened. More quietly, he was reaching out to Republicans whom he knew were skeptics of the president's policies, hoping to woo them to the Democrats' side. The list included Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Richard G. Lugar (Ind.) and Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), and two Republicans facing reelection in blue states in 2008, Sens. Norm Coleman (Minn.) and John E. Sununu (N.H.).

The presidential campaign quickly intruded. On Jan. 14, former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) went to Riverside Church in New York for a Martin Luther King Day service, and he prodded Democrats in Washington by evoking the slain civil rights leader's decision to speak out against Vietnam.

"You have the power, members of Congress, to prohibit the president from spending any money to escalate the war," said Edwards, a convert to the antiwar crusade who had voted to authorize the Iraq invasion as a senator in 2002. "Use that power. Use it now."

New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson called for the withdrawal of all U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of this year, symbolic of the strategy employed by long-shot candidates to win support among party activists.

The same weekend as Edwards's speech, Clinton visited Iraq and Afghanistan, a trip that her aides said they had concluded was her last, best opportunity to see the war zone firsthand before plunging into her presidential campaign. On Jan. 17, the day Biden and Hagel introduced a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's troop buildup, Clinton delivered her conclusions after returning from Iraq. She restated her opposition to the "surge" and stepped up pressure on the administration and the Iraqi government.

But as the legislative battle began to unfold, many Democratic lawmakers were reluctant to embrace withdrawal deadlines. Some weren't willing because they knew they would scare off potential Republican support. Others simply weren't ready to go that far. Asked on Jan. 17 whether she supported a recommendation by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to remove all combat forces by the spring of 2008, Clinton replied, "I'm not going to support a specific deadline."

Legislative Struggles

As the debate evolved from winter to spring, GOP unease with the president's policies was growing, but bridging the gap between Republicans and Democrats opposed to the war repeatedly proved impossible.

The Biden-Hagel resolution emerged from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Jan. 24 on a 12 to 9 vote, but that was as far as it would go. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced that Republicans would filibuster the measure. A Feb. 5 vote to overcome the GOP objections failed, and Reid made another attempt less than two weeks later, holding the Senate in session on a Saturday for a test of a new nonbinding resolution, this one co-authored by Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), a leading Republican foreign policy spokesman.

Though it too failed, Democrats were nonetheless emboldened by what they perceived as increasing Republican doubts about the direction of the war. They decided then to pursue binding legislation.

In the following weeks they weighed their legislative options. It was a public process, unfolding in committee rooms, floor pronouncements and news conferences. Reid and other party leaders believed that keeping the debate on the front page would increase pressure on Republicans to break with Bush. Reid told his staff to add Iraq remarks to all his floor speeches.

The template that emerged, conceived by Biden along with Sens. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and others, called for removing the original war authorization Congress had given Bush in 2002 and replacing it with new authority for a far more limited mission. In a Feb. 15 meeting in Reid's office, the majority leader told Biden and Levin to go ahead: "You guys work this out."

But red-state Democrats considered "deauthorization" too heavy-handed, while liberals opposed "reauthorization" for a war they never supported.

So Democratic leaders dropped what Biden had called the "bookends" of the proposal -- the two authorization elements -- and left the provision that would redefine and limit the mission of U.S. troops. The authors also attached the March 31, 2008, goal for withdrawing combat troops that the Iraq Study Group had established in its December report.

"Frankly there are only a few options," explained Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), summing up the Democrats' dilemma. "Staying in, getting out, changing the mission. But everyone was recognizing the huge pressure that was building up" for the most drastic action possible.

On March 15, the Biden-Levin effort, offered officially by Reid, failed 50 to 48, with Republicans dismissing the March 31 goal as a "surrender date." Twelve days later, the Senate held a similar vote, and the Democratic tally rose by two, delivering a surprise victory but still far short of the 67 votes needed to override a certain veto.

Meanwhile, along the campaign trail, a mini-drama was unfolding between Clinton and Obama.

In January, they offered competing Iraq plans, and their skirmishes over the war spilled into deliberations in the Senate as each sought to demonstrate leadership in bringing the troops home. The outlines of the Obama plan were eventually reflected in the Biden-Levin effort.

But the focus of the campaign debate was what had happened in 2002. Clinton was under constant pressure to apologize for her vote for the Iraq resolution that year, while Obama stressed his original opposition to the war as a point of contrast with his rival.

Clinton advisers were anxious to change the terms from past to future. Their view, in the words of one member of her inner circle, was that "the advantage he [Obama] seemed to have from talking about his 2002 speech would disappear" if Clinton could move the debate to the question of who best could end the war.

The moment of confrontation came not between the candidates but between their chief strategists, in a testy exchange between Clinton's Mark Penn and Obama's David Axelrod at a forum at Harvard University on March 19. Penn argued that Obama's record in the Senate is not materially different from Clinton's.

"The immutable fact," Axelrod responded, "is that, had we followed Senator Obama's advice in 2002, we wouldn't be talking about de-escalation right now."

The Power of the Purse

In February, Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a House veteran with close military ties, planted the seeds for another approach: to use Congress's power of the purse to curtail the U.S. mission. Republicans assailed the idea as a "slow-bleed" strategy that would harm American troops. But Reid was intrigued.

In late spring, the Senate leader upped the ante by attaching troop withdrawal language to an Iraq spending bill -- one war-related measure certain to reach Bush's desk. But Reid was also working with Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) on a far more ambitious plan, a funding cutoff that would take effect next spring.

Feingold seemed an unlikely accomplice, an aloof intellectual who nurtured his own presidential aspirations. But although he is a passionate war opponent, he has a pragmatic streak. "He has a real knack for finding out about how far you can push everything," Reid said. "So I always try to keep him on my radar screen."

Dodd, toiling in the back of the 2008 presidential pack, hurriedly co-sponsored the cutoff measure and began airing television commercials to pressure Obama and Clinton to join him. On May 16, both were among 29 senators to vote for the Feingold-Reid-Dodd bill. It also was the first time Clinton had signed onto any kind of deadline for withdrawal.

Reid pressed for a vote despite the divisions within his caucus, because no matter the outcome, it was a way to show the left that Democrats were working for a tangible change in policy -- not setting withdrawal goals, but tearing up the checkbook. It worked. Antiwar groups cheered the effort, and Moveon.org even ran a radio ad against Levin, who had opposed the measure.

But the groups were far from pleased on May 24, when the Senate approved a second funding bill, this one with no withdrawal deadline. "Our members were very unhappy about the capitulation to Bush after the supplemental fight," said Eli Pariser, executive director of Moveon.org Political Action.

In the voting, both Clinton and Obama waited until the clock ran out to record their positions, nervously wondering what the other might do. They were among just 14 senators to vote against the package, which funded the war through Sept. 30.

Mixed Reviews

From the Democrats' key antiwar constituency, the reviews for the year are mixed. "The good news is that a majority of Congress clearly supports a timeline for exit, and a big majority of Americans support it," Pariser said. "We're now in a 'majority versus the White House' position -- a place we wouldn't be in if the Republicans were still in power."

But, he added, "The bad news is that Republicans and the president are still blocking an end to the war."

A Democratic congressional aide summed it up differently. After winning 79 votes for a resolution urging a course change in late 2005, the Democratic leadership had managed mostly to offer a series of measures that couldn't command even 60 votes. What had the past eight months accomplished? he wondered.

On June 27, Bush called Smith to lobby him on an immigration bill, and the conversation turned to Iraq. Over the next 20 minutes, the senator from Oregon unburdened himself, explaining why he had turned against the conflict.

"I know he's struggling to find the right way forward. He needs to make that very clear to the American people," Smith said of Bush. He added, "If the answer after Petraeus is we have to stay the course, I think there will be general revulsion in the country."

Whether that would translate into congressional action remains unclear. "I certainly don't know what we have 60 votes for," Reid said. "Much less 67."

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