Democrats In a Box on Iraq Supplemental Bill

Posted September 24, 2003 at 6:24pm

With a close eye on the political waters heading into the 2004 elections, House Democratic leaders are likely to back the White House’s $87 billion Iraq spending request even in the face of a split in their Caucus and internal polling showing problems with President Bush’s credibility on the topic.

Well-placed Democratic sources say both Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) want to avoid being viewed as unsupportive of American troops, a potentially politically damaging move for Democrats.

“It’s not really an option” for the leaders to oppose it, said one Democratic leadership aide. “Democrats don’t want the troops to pay the consequences for Bush’s mismanagement of the war.”

That move would come even though a large share of Democratic rank-and-file Members and the party’s liberal base are pushing the minority party to oppose the supplemental. Progressive Democrats in particular have pressured the Caucus to advocate that conditions be met in order to support it, and fret that the party should not back down if the White House fails to answer key questions about the money.

It also comes as Democrats circulate new internal polling data showing 53 percent of Americans surveyed believe the country is on the wrong track, and the largest share — or 33 percent — believe the war in Iraq is to blame.

House Democrats have been hammering the White House for failing to fully justify the $87 billion request, saying they want a full accounting for the expenditure. If they don’t get the answers, however, Democrats may be put in the uncomfortable position of backing the spending bill anyway.

“We’re going to set a higher standard and won’t take no for an answer,” Pelosi insisted Wednesday.

But one well-placed Democratic aide put it in realistic terms: “The only answers that will be made public will be the answers the Bush administration has to give the Republicans to make them happy.”

While House Democrats wrestle with how to proceed, similar tensions are mounting among Senate Democrats, who boast a group of about 15 solidly anti-war Senators searching for the proper line of attack against Bush over his handling of Iraq.

The leading anti-war voice in the chamber, Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), hosted an hour-long meeting of the group last Wednesday in his Appropriations Committee offices, plotting strategy for how take on the president on all aspects of the $87 billion supplemental without getting attacked by Bush’s allies as unpatriotic.

“You’re in a box because if you don’t support the troops, it’s hell,” Sen. Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) said after exiting the meeting in Byrd’s office.

As if the anti-war group needed any reminding of how they can be treated, less than 24 hours after the Byrd meeting ended Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), another leading opponent of the war in Iraq, told The Associated Press that Bush’s rational for war was a “fraud” and that the president was committing “bribery” to win support for his post-war actions among foreign leaders.

Kennedy was roundly attacked by conservative pundits and White House allies such as House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), then again on Tuesday morning by a series of Senate Republicans in floor speeches. Kennedy’s backers returned fire, accusing Republicans of trying to shut off all debate on the increasingly contentious issue of Iraq.

“DeLay is the one who is unpatriotic because he’s trying to stifle debate,” charged Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.), who also attended the meeting in Byrd’s office.

The Kennedy episode epitomized the divide among Democrats, particularly in the Senate, where the staunchest opponents of Bush’s handling of Iraq increasingly feel that even the military portion of the $87 billion is a questionable expenditure.

“There are a lot of conflicting emotions within our Caucus,” said Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.).

Even on the House side, the Kennedy comments raised eyebrows. One Democratic leadership aide, said: “People don’t think what Kennedy said was helpful.”

House Democratic leaders are not planning on whipping their Caucus on the upcoming supplemental, giving Members the freedom to vote as they see fit.

Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) said it “becomes a very difficult dilemma for a lot” of House Democrats if the Bush administration fails to provide answers to Democrats’ questions.

“Our troops didn’t ask to go to Iraq,” he said. “The last thing any of us want — Democrat or Republican — is for the troops not to be properly equipped or supported. That’s a hard one. I don’t know” what Members will do.

“Everybody is trying to work their way through this,” added Rep. Robert Matsui (Calif.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. “It is my strong belief that most Members will end up supporting the $87 billion.”

Pelosi herself has received some pressure from her liberal base within the Caucus to oppose the spending, but one leadership aide said these lawmakers “understand the position she’s in.”

“We have to be responsible,” said the aide. “We have to support the troops.”

The rub comes for Democrats who want to criticize the Bush administration, but nevertheless want to remain strong on defense and military issues — which Republicans historically win on in elections. Democrats believe they have made headway, and want to ride the tailwind.

“We have to be careful,” said Rep. Albert Wynn (D-Md.). “We have to make sure we are positioned as pro-defense and patriotic, while making legitimate criticisms that the Bush administration is failing to push an adequate plan.”

As House Democrats weigh how to proceed, Boxer, Durbin and other participants in last week’s Senate strategy session said no final decisions had been made on how to finesse their attack against the entire Bush approach in Iraq without getting hit as unpatriotic. Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said Senators are coming up with their different approaches, but all things are under consideration, including seriously questioning the roughly $65 billion in funds for the ongoing military effort.

Jeffords said: “How do you get out of the mess [in Iraq]? There is no consensus on that. But there are strong feelings that you have to send a message.”

One senior Senate Democrat who supported the Iraq resolution last fall and is not part of the Byrd contingent said that there’s a “small group” of Senate Democrats who feel “that this policy is so fundamentally flawed” that they would most likely oppose portions — or all — of the supplemental.

But, the Democrat predicted, there was a solid bloc of Democrats who would, at a minimum, vote in favor of the roughly $65 billion in military funding.

They would then use the remaining reconstruction money as a vehicle to voice their opposition, attacking the White House through amendments on the floor.

“You take on the policies,” the Senate Democrat said, requesting anonymity. “It’s a very fine line.”