It’s beginning to look like Congress should take lessons in democracy from the Iraqi Parliament. The majority of Iraqi parliamentarians have signed a draft bill that would establish a timetable for the withdrawal of US troops. Iraqi politicians are responding to popular sentiment in their country, as reflected by polls that show 65 percent of Iraqis want the occupation to end. Would that American politicians were as responsive to public opinion here; a recent CBS News/New York Times poll found that 64 percent of Americans want out. But the Democratic majority in Congress is so razor-thin that in late May it finally gave up the attempt to pass a funding bill establishing a timeline for withdrawal. The caucus was further undermined by internal disunity, as the defection of Carl Levin, Steny Hoyer and others prevented House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate majority leader Harry Reid from forcing a timeline on the Administration.
At least Pelosi and Reid are voting right. When the House on May 10 considered Jim McGovern’s proposal to fund redeployment of US forces and contractors from Iraq on a schedule beginning no later than ninety days from the measure’s enactment, the 171 yes votes included that of Pelosi. When the Senate voted May 16 on whether to consider Russ Feingold’s plan to set an exit timeline, the twenty-nine supporters included Reid.
Thanks to Senator Chris Dodd, who cut television ads for his long-shot presidential bid that highlighted his support for Feingold’s measure–and in clear recognition of public antiwar sentiment–three Senate contenders for the Democratic nomination, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Joe Biden, scrambled to join their colleagues in backing the timeline. But in the face of fears that they would be accused of “not supporting the troops,” and with Republicans remaining loyal to Bush, House Democrats dropped the timeline and gave Bush a spending bill with only a few loose benchmarks for “progress,” which he will be allowed to waive. As Feingold said, “There has been a lot of tough talk from members of Congress about wanting to end this war, but it looks like the desire for political comfort won out over real action.”
McGovern and Feingold recognized long ago, and more and more Congressional Democrats now understand, that only a decision by the House and Senate to use the power of the purse will end this war–a war that, as Stephen Glain’s article (see page 11) on the refugee crisis powerfully illustrates, is spreading misery across the Middle East. Iraqis are fleeing not only continuing sectarian bloodshed but, as Nick Turse’s article (see page 14) shows, a US counterinsurgency and air war that are taking an unconscionable number of civilian lives.
Pelosi and Reid are right when they say this is not the end of the fight over money for Iraq. Congress will be looking at another spending measure in the summer or early fall. The problem is that there are still prominent Democrats who don’t get it. Senate Armed Services Committee chair Carl Levin voted against the Feingold bill, attacking it on the Senate floor in language that sounded like a White House “support the President to support the troops” talking point. Particularly disappointing were some of the new Democratic senators, like Jim Webb and Jon Tester. In the House, majority leader Steny Hoyer was joined by key Representatives like Mark Udall, John Spratt and Ron Kind in voting with Republicans to block the McGovern amendment.
Make no mistake, Levin, Hoyer and others like them in the Democratic caucus are slowing movement toward unity in support of withdrawal. They are undermining the ability of their party to clarify the lines of debate and force wavering Republicans–like Senators Susan Collins, John Sununu and Norm Coleman–to either take an antiwar stand or face re-election defeat in 2008. These unacceptable votes should raise the ire of antiwar activists and the American people, and the members of Congress who cast them must be held accountable for extending the war. Americans must make it clear that when the next chance comes to use the power of the purse, our representatives should follow the will of the people and call a halt to Bush’s disastrous war.