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Freshman lawmaker Jason Chaffetz goes against Republican grain on Afghan war

By Perry Bacon Jr.
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 13, 2010; A13

As the House neared a vote this month on funding for the war in Afghanistan, Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) wanted reassurance. The lawmaker had criticized the surge of 30,000 troops President Obama authorized, saying that the United States does not have a clear policy or exit strategy. But he had not yet cast a vote against war funding.

He knew such a move would isolate him in the Republican Party; most GOP lawmakers strongly support the war effort even as they rail against almost everything else Obama has done. And Chaffetz is no moderate: He won his seat in 2008 running to the right of the conservative incumbent, has called for cutting federal employees' pay since taking office and has openly discussed a "tea party"-style challenge to Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R) in 2012.

On the eve of the vote, Chaffetz called families of the three men from his district who have died in Afghanistan since he was elected and told them he was considering opposing the funding.

"This was one of the toughest votes I've had in Congress," Chaffetz said. "So I asked their opinion. And to a T, they all agreed with me."

So Chaffetz joined a tiny bloc in Congress: Republicans opposed to the Afghan war. Chaffetz, 43, voted for a measure that would bar the administration from funding anything other than withdrawals and another that would require Obama to present a plan by April for the "safe, orderly and expeditious redeployment of U.S. troops." Only nine House Republicans backed either measure.

"It may be slow, but if we continue to have votes like this, I think you will see a lot of Republicans shift to this point of view," Chaffetz said. "When you have people like George Will [opposed to the war], I'm not an isolated incident."

The House eventually passed the funding measure, and the Senate is likely to do the same in the coming weeks. But in a show of frustration, Democrats insisted on holding votes on two antiwar resolutions before authorizing the $33 billion in funding for Iraq and Afghanistan. Both measures failed, as expected, but 153 Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), supported having a withdrawal plan by April.

Most Republicans not only voted against the resolutions but also attacked them as setting up an artificial timetable that would weaken the military's hand.

But an eclectic mix of Republicans joined the Democrats. Some of them, such as Reps. Ron Paul (Tex.) and Walter B. Jones (N.C.), have long criticized the U.S. presence in Iraq and Afghanistan. Others, such as Chaffetz, are newer to the position.

"I can state emphatically that if we continue our present strategy in Afghanistan, we will not succeed, and America will eventually be weakened by loss of lives and the expenditures of hundreds of billions of dollars," said Rep. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.), another war opponent. "What works in Afghanistan is what has worked in Afghanistan: Let the Afghans pay the price. Let them do their fighting."

For now, those views, if not isolated, are firmly in the minority in the GOP. When Republican National Committee Chairman Michael S. Steele recently cast doubts on the war effort, leading party figures such as Liz Cheney, the daughter of former vice president Richard B. Cheney and founder of a conservative foreign policy organization, and Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol called for him to resign. The chairman quickly retracted the comments.

A June Washington Post-ABC News poll found that 48 percent of Democrats thought the United States was losing the war in Afghanistan and 66 percent didn't think it was worth continuing to fight. But 60 percent of Republicans said the nation was winning and almost two-thirds said the battle was worth fighting.

"I think there has long been a view among Republicans that we want to favorably resolve the situation in Afghanistan, and I think that's very much still in place," said David Winston, a Republican pollster.

Most of the Republicans concerned about the war are longtime lawmakers such as Paul, who can easily hold their House seats and are unlikely to seek higher offices. (Paul could wage another presidential campaign but would be a considerable underdog.)

But Chaffetz said he thinks his stand on Afghanistan could help his political future.

"Nobody wants to be seen as cut and run, but I think this is a good conservative position," he said. "I think it is what the majority of my district and what the state of Utah wants to see happen."

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