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For Anti-War Democrats: The Toughest Choice | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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For Anti-War Democrats: The Toughest Choice

The House Appropriations Committee deliberations on whether to advance an Iraq War spending bill that includes provisions seeking to extract U.S. troops from the conflict by next year points up the challenge faced by Speaker Nancy Pelosi in the coming week.

Pelosi, who voted against authorizing President Bush to attack Iraq, has been clear about her desire to bring the war to a conclusion. As Pelosi said this week: "Any U.S. military engagement must be judged on three counts -- whether it makes our country safer, our military stronger or the region more stable. The war in Iraq fails on all three scores."

Yet, to Pelosi's view, the only way to do that is by providing the money for continuance of the war over the course of at least another year. This is a painful political calculation, she says, arguing that the neither the Democratic caucus not the full House is not prepared to back a quick exit strategy.

As Pelosi has said over the years, "There is no one Democratic voice . . . and there is no one Democratic position (on the war)." Members of her own leadership team, including Maryland Congressman Steny Hoyer, the number two Democrat in the House, approved of the war initially and have never been comfortable in the anti-war camp. And, while there are many House Democrats who favor the rapid withdrawal of all U.S. troops from the quagmire, there are a handful of Joe Lieberman-like Democrats who really do want to "stay the course." And there are many more who are afraid to take responsibility for ending the war because, even though the notion in popular in polling, post-withdrawal realities on the ground in the Middle East could be ugly enough to cause second thoughts on the part of voters.

So, in hopes of initially uniting Democrats and then creating a new center of gravity in the House that might see a significant number of Republicans sign on to a "troops home" measure, Pelosi and two of her closest allies, Appropriations Committee chair David Obey, D-Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania Congressman John Murtha, who chairs the Appropriations subcommittee charges with oversight of military spending, have set out to use the spending bill as a tool to reframe the debate about the war.

It is the sort of serious legislative move that gets points from government teachers but that leaves activists cold. And Pelosi has struggled to keep her balance in the face of fierce attacks from the White House and the Republican National Committee for trying to "micromanage" the war – GOP press releases refer to her deridingly as "General Pelosi" – and from progressives who say she is not doing enough to bring the troops home.

The essential objection to the legislation Pelosi, Obey and Murtha are pushing so aggressively is that it does not end the war. In fact, it funds the war for a year or more – perhaps even providing sufficient resources for the president to pursue his objectives until the end of his tenure in 2009.

Pelosi and her allies speak of establishing benchmarks and timelines designed to force the president's hand; "We are trying to end the authorization of the war if the Iraqis and the administration don't perform," says Obey, who got in trouble last week for referring to critics of the plan's caution as "idiot liberals."

Unfortunately for Obey and Pelosi, the "idiot liberals" have a point when they say that the Democratic leadership plan offers no assurance that U.S. troops will be extracted from Iraq in 2008.

The spending bill is too vague and soft to be counted on to actually do that. As California Congresswoman Barbara Lee, perhaps the most ardent war foe in the House said when voting against the Pelosi plan Thursday, "I don't think the president deserves another chance."

Lee has been blunt in saying that she believes "the American people sent a mandate to us to bring home our men and women before the end of the year," and she has proposed an amendment to the spending bill that would do just that. Lee's plan would provide funding for bringing the troops home safely rather than continuing the war.

Out of deference to Obey, arguably the strongest committee chair on the Hill, Lee did not offer her amendment during the Appropriations Committee deliberations. Those deliberations saw all the other Democrats on the committee vote for the measure, which was approved and sent to the full House by a vote of 36-28.

But, Lee, a Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair, says. "Still, too many of our troops are dying in an occupation that needs to end sooner rather than later, and I will continue to push for enforceable timelines and to protect our troops and to fully fund their safe and orderly withdrawal from Iraq at the earliest practicable date."

Anti-war activists who have been pushing for Congress to use the "power of the purse" to defund the war are organizing to push House members to back the Lee amendment. In an email sent today, Peace Action executive director Kevin Martin notes the coming fourth anniversary of the war's start and says to the group's tens of thousands of backers, "I need you to tell Congress this must be the last such anniversary we observe.

The Supplemental War Appropriations bill has been passed by the House Appropriations Committee and is on its way to a full vote in the House. Regrettably, this bill passed without stipulating a one year or shorter timeline for withdrawal nor any language requiring Bush to seek Congressional approval for attacking Iran."

"Now," continues Martin, "every Representative has an opportunity to reshape U.S. military involvement in the Middle East -- and you have the responsibility to tell them what needs to be done." To do so, Martin urges activists to tell members of the House to: "Support the Lee Amendment which restricts spending to fund only a safe and orderly withdrawal of U.S. troops and military contractors from Iraq by the end of the year."

But will the Lee amendment come to the floor?

Pelosi is working hard to find 218 votes for her proposal. If she gets there sometime next week, she will call a very quick vote. The speaker does not want to be slowed down by amendments from the left or the right. So there are no guarantees the Lee amendment will go up for a vote – although some Democratic leaders have quietly suggested that allowing such a vote might serve as a means to ease pressure from the grassroots on anti-war members.

If the Lee amendment is not available as an out to express clear opposition to extending the war, there is no question that a number of progressive Democrats will vote against the funding bill – as will a handful of anti-war Republicans.

That's Pelosi's challenge and, at least to some extent, it is also the challenge for the anti-war community.

Peace Action's Martin says in his email that activists should urge members to vote "no" on the Pelosi plan unless it includes both the Lee amendment and an amendment prohibiting an attack on Iran without specific congressional approval. Since it is exceptionally unlikely that such amendments will be attached to Pelosi's measure, anti-war members of the House and activists around the country are faced with a conundrum.

They can refuse to back Pelosi, effectively preventing the advance of a serious if deeply flawed attempt to constrain the Bush administration's war making over the next two years. Or they can swallow hard and back a measure that continues to fund a war they believe should be finished.

Some of the leading opponents of the war in the House have decided to go with Pelosi. When her plan was approved by the Appropriations Committee, it had the votes of members such as Illinois Democrat Jesse Jackson Jr. and New York Democrat Jose Serrano, a member of the Out of Iraq Caucus who last year was one of just three House Democrats to vote for a measure to immediately withdraw all U.S. troops from the country.

Serrano said that supporting the $125 billion supplemental spending bill backed by Pelosi and Obey was the most difficult vote of his three-decades as a member of the New York state legislature and the U.S. House. "Some of my friends on the left are telling me that I sold out. In the Bronx they're ready to do what they have to do," said Serrano, acknowledging anti-war movement frustration with Pelosi's plan. But Serrano argued that the measure set in motion a process that could lead to withdrawal and he said, "I want this war to end. I don't want to go to any more funerals. So, I will take whatever heat is given... and support this bill today and support it on the floor next week."

The question now is whether other ardent foes of the war will choose to give their votes to Pelosi -- who, knowing that she will lose some conservative Democrats, needs the overwhelming majority of anti-war Democrats on her side if her proposal is to prevail.

This coming week will be one of incredibly difficult choices for Democrats who know this war must end. Do they try to get what they can by voting with Pelosi or do they abandon Pelosi to stand squarely against the continuation of the war?

"If you push too far, you may get nothing," says Congressman Jerrold Nadler, a New York Democrat who will back Pelosi's plan. "I'll be attacked by people at home saying it's not perfect. It's not. We don't have the votes to pass something that's perfect. It's the best we can get."

But Congresswoman Lynn Woolsey, a California Democrat who co-chairs the Congressional Progressive Caucus and who has been one of Hinchey's closest allies for years, says voters put Democrats in charge to take "bold action" against the war – not to compromise. Explains Woolsey, "There's a significant number of people who are steadfast in not continuing this war, who absolutely don't want to fund the surge and who want to give a voice to the people who voted on Nov. 7 and asked us to end this once and for all."

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John Nichols' new book is THE GENIUS OF IMPEACHMENT: The Founders' Cure forRoyalism. Rolling Stone's Tim Dickinson hails it as a "nervy, acerbic, passionately argued history-cum-polemic [that] combines a rich examination of the parliamentary roots and past use ofthe 'heroic medicine' that is impeachment with a call for Democraticleaders to 'reclaim and reuse the most vital tool handed to us by thefounders for the defense of our most basic liberties.'"

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