Sunday, January 14, 2007

Democrats no longer fearful of anti-war reputation

By Noam N. Levey
Times Staff Writer
January 13, 2007
6:12 PM PST
The Los Angeles Times


WASHINGTON -- Emboldened by President Bush's deeply unpopular proposal to send more troops to Iraq, congressional Democrats are shedding their wariness about tackling the war and embracing positions once held primarily by the party's most liberal fringe.

Fewer than two weeks after taking power, party leaders who had promised just an increase in oversight hearings on the war now are talking openly about cutting off funds for military operations.

Centrist Democrats are lining up beside longtime anti-war liberals, promising to do everything in their power to stop the president's plans to deploy an additional 21,500 troops in Baghdad and Al Anbar Province.

And the war's most passionate opponents in the House, whose last meeting before the elections was relegated to a basement room, met last week in one of the grandest rooms on Capitol Hill and drew scores of supporters, television cameras and journalists.

"Ours is now the mainstream position," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., who two years ago saw her resolution calling for the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq crushed on the House floor. Today, the congressional Out of Iraq Caucus co-founded by Rep. Maxine Waters, D-Calif., has more than 80 members.

Congressional Democrats, suddenly united in their intent to pass resolutions against the escalation, still face challenges in deciding how far to go in what could become a historic showdown between two branches of government over the course of a war.

Their threat to cut off funds drew a rebuke Saturday from President Bush, who challenged the war critics to offer their own plan for Iraq.

"Those who refuse to give this plan a chance to work have an obligation to offer an alternative that has a better chance for success," he said in his weekly radio address. "To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible."

The Democrats' rapid embrace of what were once minority positions capped an extraordinary week on Capitol Hill as Congress stirred after years of standing by a wartime president.

More than two dozen members of Congress went to the floor of the House to condemn the war Thursday. Just one Republican rose to challenge them.

Democrats, who campaigned against the war, seized majorities in the House and Senate last fall largely because of unhappiness with the president's policies.

But when the Democrats returned to Capitol Hill this month, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and other senior party leaders had planned to focus on a purely domestic agenda.

They cautiously avoided talk of cutting funding or other measures to compel Bush to change course in Iraq. As recently as Monday, Pelosi had refused to discuss possible legislation to limit an escalation in Iraq.

But the next day, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., in a speech laced with references to the mistakes of Vietnam, announced his intention to introduce a bill that would require the president to seek congressional approval for any troop increase in Iraq.

Within hours, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he would introduce a resolution the following week condemning any White House plans to send additional troops. Pelosi's office quickly announced that House Democrats would do the same.

By the time Bush addressed the nation Wednesday night, congressional Democrats across the ideological spectrum were rallying to oppose the president.

"We have to take a stand. ... We have to do everything we can," said Rep. Ellen Tauscher, D-Calif., a centrist Democrat who said she wanted to sign on to the House version of Kennedy's bill, which is sponsored by one of her chamber's most liberal members.

Friday, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a decorated Vietnam veteran and longtime military supporter, said he would use his position as chairman of the House Appropriations defense subcommittee to try to block funding for any troop increase in Iraq. Murtha also said he wanted to force the closure of the controversial military prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and put limits on how long military service members could be deployed.

A Pelosi spokesman said the speaker had encouraged Murtha to explore the funding limitations.

The same day, in a mark of how much has changed in Washington, House Republican leaders hosted a sober meeting to air the complaints of members of their caucus about the president's plans.

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