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Refusing to Write the Blank Check | The Nation

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John Nichols

John Nichols

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Refusing to Write the Blank Check

In 1965, when President Lyndon Johnson sought a major supplemental appropriation to fund the rapidly expanding US presence in Vietnam, ten members of Congress said "no." The group, all Democrats, included three US Senators--Oregon's Wayne Morse, Alaska's Ernest Gruening and Wisconsin's Gaylord Nelson--and seven members of the House: Californians Phil Burton, George Brown and Don Edwards, New Yorkers Bill Ryan and John Dow, Oregon's Edith Green, and a newly-elected representative from Detroit, Michigan, named John Conyers.

Of the ten, only Conyers remains in the Congress. And, on Friday, he again cast his vote against a presidential demand for the appropriation of money to fund a distant war that critics have begun to refer to as a "quagmire." A fierce critic of the Bush Administration's domestic and international policies -- Conyers likes to say, "We need a regime change in the United States" --the Congressman voted against the Bush Administration's request for an $87 billion supplemental appropriation, most of which will be used to fund the continued occupation of Iraq. "(The Administration is) adding $87 billion on top of the $67 billion already spent, and there is no end in sight," Conyers said, echoing his criticism of appropriations for Vietnam

When he voted against the Iraq appropriation, however, Conyers had a lot more company.

One hundred and thirty-seven members of the Congress -- 125 in the House and 12 in the Senate -- resisted the Administration's demand for the $87 billion. While the vote against the appropriation was insufficient to stop the war, it served as a signal that opposition to the US occupation of Iraq is more politically potent than analysts with short memories of past fights over military funding fights would have Americans believe.

Among the dozen senators who opposed the $87 billion appropriation were the chamber's two senior members, Democrats Robert Byrd, of West Virginia, and Edward Kennedy, of Massachusetts, both of whom supported that 1965 Vietnam appropriation. Byrd, whose passionate opposition to the Iraq war made him something of a hero to young activists, left no doubt about his feelings during Friday's debate. Comparing the Administration's promotion of the war in Iraq with Nazi Reich Marshall Hermann Goring's propaganda before and during World War II, Byrd declared, "The emperor has no clothes. This entire adventure in Iraq has been based on propaganda and manipulation. Eight-seven billion dollars is too much to pay for the continuation of a war based on falsehoods."

Kennedy and Byrd were joined by nine Democrats, California's Barbara Boxer, North Carolina's John Edwards, Florida's Bob Graham, Iowa's Tom Harkin, South Carolina's Ernest Hollings, Massachusetts' John Kerry, New Jersey's Frank Lautenberg, Vermont's Patrick Leahy and Maryland's Paul Sarbanes. Vermont Independent Jim Jeffords joined them in voting "no." Notably, Harkin, Edwards and Kerry voted for the October, 2002, resolution that Bush used as an authorization to invade Iraq.

Edwards and Kerry, both Democratic presidential candidates, have taken hard hits on the campaign trail for their support of last year's resolution. On Thursday, they sided with Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chair Dennis Kucinich in opposing the $87 billion spending scheme. Kucinich, the only Democratic presidential candidate who voted against the October, 2002, resolution, again helped to organize House opposition to the war.

"We must end the occupation," Kucinich, a representative from Ohio, said of the $87 billion request. "Seventy-seven percent of these funds would go for an occupation that is unjust and counterproductive. The Iraq occupation destabilizes an already turbulent region, and we should not risk the death of a single additional American soldier to perpetuate it."

In the House, Kucinich was one of 118 Democrats, six Republicans and an independent, Vermont's Bernie Sanders, who opposed the appropriation. The majority of House Democrats opposed the $87 billion appropriation. House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-California, joined the opposition, as did Wisconsin's David Obey, the ranking Democrat on the Appropriations Committee, New York's Charles Rangel, the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Committee, Michigan's John Dingell, the ranking Democrat on the Energy and Commerce Committee, and Conyers, the ranking Democrat on the Judiciary Committee. Conyers is also the ranking member of the Congressional Black Caucus, which provided much of the opposition to the appropriation. "We are leading this Congress and the Democratic Caucus in saying 'no' to the president," said California Democrat Maxine Waters, a key player in both the Black Caucus and the Progressive Caucus.

California Democrat Diane Watson, a former diplomat, summed up the sentiments of members of the Black and Progressive caucuses, when she announced, "We cannot afford to give this president another blank check to spend on his Iraq adventure when so many people are suffering through a recession here at home and when our nation's critical infrastructure needs are being neglected. My vote against the Iraq supplemental is a vote for the American people and our troops, who will continue to bear the burden of the president's failed policy."

Among the Democrats voting with Bush were former House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Missouri, and Senator Joe Lieberman, D-Connecticut, both Democratic presidential candidates who have been steady supporters of the war. While Gephardt and Lieberman could not bring themselves to disagree with Bush's request, six House Republicans did. Among them were moderates such as Wisconsin's Tom Petri, conservatives such as Tennessee's John Duncan Jr. and Idaho's C.L. "Butch" Otter, and consistent war critic Ron Paul of Texas.

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