New York Times
May 24, 2007 News Analysis
By Carl Hulse
WASHINGTON, May 23 — Congressional contortions over the Iraq spending bill could end up with most House Democrats momentarily occupying the position they were so desperate to vacate: the minority.
The decision by the Democratic majority to strip the measure of a timetable for troop withdrawal has raised the prospect that it could be approved mainly by Republicans with scattered Democrat support. The idea that many Democrats would be left on the losing side in a consequential vote has exposed a sharp divide within the party, drawn scorn from antiwar groups, confused the public and frustrated the party rank and file.
But in recounting the leadership’s thinking, senior Democrats and other officials said that by early this week they had concluded there was no alternative but to give ground to President Bush despite their view that he had mishandled the war and needed to be put under tighter Congressional rein.
Democrats said they did not relish the prospect of leaving Washington for a Memorial Day break — the second recess since the financing fight began — and leaving themselves vulnerable to White House attacks that they were again on vacation while the troops were wanting. That criticism seemed more politically threatening to them than the anger Democrats knew they would draw from the left by bowing to Mr. Bush.
Some lawmakers favored sending Mr. Bush another bill with a timetable for withdrawal and risking a second veto, the senior Democrats said. But they said they had questioned whether such a measure could pass the Senate a second time, raising the possibility that Congress would be left sitting on the bill and carrying the blame.
“It would have stayed at this end of Pennsylvania Avenue,” Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, said of a second timeline measure.
Mr. Emanuel said he intended to support the war money bill and other Democrats intend to join him in backing it, as well as a second proposal containing $17 billion in new domestic spending and a minimum-wage increase that Democrats are hailing as a major victory. Representative Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the majority leader, is expected to back the war financing bill as well.
But scores of other Democrats, including Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California, say they have no intention of voting for the more than $100 billion sought by the White House for combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan because Mr. Bush refused to accede to timelines, readiness standards and other conditions. They have said repeatedly since taking control in January that they will not turn over more money for the war without some movement toward a withdrawal.
In allowing the war money measure to reach the floor with indifferent backing from her own party, Ms. Pelosi is breaking one of the cardinal rules of her predecessor, J. Dennis Hastert of Illinois, whose mantra was to legislate with the majority of the majority party.
“She is showing she is the speaker of the whole House,” said Brendan Daly, a spokesman for Ms. Pelosi. “Even though she does not personally support it, she said the money will go to the troops and she is following through on that.”
But the outcome has angered segments of the antiwar coalition that helped put Democrats in charge of Congress last November on the presumption that the party would hold Mr. Bush’s feet to the fire when it came to the war.
Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org, said Democrats were retreating when the public was squarely on their side. Members of his group were distributing fliers with an illustration of a spinal column to lawmakers, urging them to “show some backbone” and oppose the war spending bill.
“The Democrats were elected in November to lead the country out of the war, and this bill doesn’t do that,” Mr. Pariser said. “And the perplexing thing about this moment is that the Democrats have the political wind strongly at their backs, and the country wants them to fight.”
Many Democrats share that view, saying they would have preferred a harder line from the leadership. “They were weaker than I would have preferred,” said Representative Jerrold Nadler, Democrat of New York.
But some of Mr. Nadler’s colleagues said Democrats had to exhibit the responsibility that came with power and should reserve their criticism for Mr. Bush.
“The speaker and our leadership have been indefatigable in their efforts to bring the president to a place to do what we want to do — fund the troops and begin to change direction in Iraq,” said Representative Ellen O. Tauscher, Democrat of California.
The leadership has engaged in a bit of legislative legerdemain to ease the pain for Democrats when it comes to the votes on the war money. Their plan calls for two votes. One would be on the war spending and related benchmarks calling for progress in Iraq — benchmarks that were previously resisted by the White House. That is the proposal many Democrats and Ms. Pelosi intend to vote against. Republican officials said Wednesday they believed their members would back it so the money could reach the Pentagon.
A second proposal would contain the first minimum-wage increase in more than a decade and $17 billion in new money for agriculture subsidies, child health care, veterans and military health care, and Gulf Coast rebuilding. Democrats intend to line up behind that measure. If passed, the two proposals would automatically be merged and sent to the Senate without a final vote, sparing Democrats a roll call on the war money and Republicans a vote on the spending.
Aides said they expected the combined proposals to draw considerable support from Senate Democrats who would be more inclined to want to go on record backing the financing for the military as well as the domestic spending. The idea was to get the measure to Mr. Bush by the weekend, though it was still being assembled Wednesday.
Some senators were weighing their options. The Democratic presidential contenders Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois were not tipping their hand.
And Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader and Ms. Pelosi’s partner in negotiating with the White House, had also not revealed how he intended to vote.
Should Mr. Reid decline to support the final bill, it would mean the approval of the war money over the personal objections of the top Democrats in both the House and Senate.