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For now, Democrats tread water on Iraq

Cautious newly-elected Democratic members of Congress are saying they want to wait before taking action to try to force President Bush to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.
Bill Nelson
Re-elected last week, Sen. Bill Nelson, D-Fla., warned Monday of a terrorist take-over of Iraq.Joe Burbank / pool via AP file
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Cautious newly-elected Democratic members of Congress are saying they want to wait before taking action to try to force President Bush to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq.

Interviews with several newly elected Democratic House members Monday revealed that they’re hoping the commission headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Indiana Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton comes up with an Iraq exit scenario and that they’ll not need to vote on cutting off funding for the Iraq operation.

Thursday’s vote for House Majority Leader shapes up as a test of Iraq policy.

Rep. John Murtha, an outspoken war critic and an ally of speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi, is vying with Rep. Steny Hoyer, who has said “a precipitous withdrawal of American forces in Iraq could lead to disaster, spawning a civil war, fostering a haven for terrorists and damaging our nation's security and credibility.”

Murtha’s allies argue that only by electing him would House Democrats heed the directive of the voters last Tuesday (as they interpret it): get out of Iraq.

Murtha saw 'devastating blow' in 2004
Murtha has long been critical of Bush’s Iraq policy, saying back in May of 2004, “It would be a devastating international blow to us if we were to get out (of Iraq), but I don’t know (if) we have the will to mobilize now that the public has turned against it.”

More recently, Murtha has said he supports “bringing our troops home at the earliest practicable date.”

“Last Tuesday’s election was a referendum on Iraq,” said Andrew Koneschusky, spokesman for Murtha’s campaign to become majority leader. “Now Iraq is not a campaign issue; it’s an issue we must solve; it’s a (Democratic) leadership issue; there’s no better individual to lead our party during this time given his background. Jack Murtha’s outspokenness set the stage for the Democrats winning back the majority. He helped us deliver the majority; he’s the person to lead now that we have power.”

In the Senate, under Democratic control starting in January, incoming Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D- Mich. said he hoped to form a bipartisan group of senators to pass a resolution urging Bush to begin withdrawing American troops.

“We should pressure the White House to commence the phased redeployment of U.S. troops from Iraq in four to six months… and thereby to make it clear to the Iraqis that our presence is not open-ended and that they must make the necessary political compromises to preserve Iraq as a nation,” Levin said.

“I’m not prepared to go beyond that,” the Michigan Democrat added, fending off talk of resolutions demanding troop withdrawal or cutting off funds for U.S. operations in Iraq.

Last June the Senate, by a 60-39 vote, rejected Levin’s non-binding resolution which would have urged Bush to begin the withdrawal of U.S. troops this year.

That resolution did not have any enforcement mechanism and would not have cut off funds.

Levin estimated Monday that 50 or 51 senators would vote for his resolution if it were offered now.

Warning of terrorist take-over in Iraq
Levin’s colleague on the Armed Services Committee, Sen. Bill Nelson, D- Fla., who voted against Levin’s resolution last June and who won reelection by a landslide last week, took a different tack than Levin.

Success in Iraq is still necessary, Nelson emphasized, because “the alternative is not very palatable. The alternative is to turn it over to the terrorists, and if the terrorists take over Iraq and are sitting on top of that oil, where do they go next? They look south, they head for the Saudi royal family; if they take over (Saudi Arabia), they are sitting on the world’s oil reserves. That’s not a situation the free world wants to face.”

The message from Florida voters last week, Nelson said, was that they “want the United States to have a chance of success in protecting its interests which is by stabilizing Iraq.”

Newly elected House Democrats acknowledged that voters wanted a new Iraq policy, but were reluctant to speak of forcing Bush to withdraw troops.

“I think we have a mandate to apply pressure to the president to try to bring about a strategic redeployment of our troops from Iraq,” said Iowa Rep.–elect Bruce Braley, who won a seat now held by Republican Rep. Jim Nussle.

Braley said the Democratic House would need to wait to see how Bush reacted by altering his Iraq policy in response to last week’s election. “It’s like a chess game at this point: he has the ability to control the movement of those troops as commander-in-chief, and Congress has the power of the purse.”

Cut off funding for Iraq deployment?
Asked about the resolution offered by Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., to cut off funds for the deployment in Iraq, Braley said “I have considered that and I have talked about the need to enter into serious discussions with the White House about a new plan that is going to chart a new course — short of taking that drastic step (of cutting off funds) — but this step has been taken by a Republican Congress with a Democratic president. Many of the Iowa delegation who were Republicans voted to do just that when President Clinton was talking about expanding the ground war in Kosovo.”

The point of the Kosovo example, Braley said, is to show that there is precedent for cutting off funds for a military deployment.

“It’s a tough call,” the Iowa Democrat added. “How long do you stand by and do nothing when your foreign policy isn’t working and when your troops are being subjected to a killing field and civil war with no clear direction in sight?”

Asked whether voters would hold the Democratic majority accountable if a large number of U.S. troops were still deployed in Iraq next year or in 2008, Rep.-elect Chris Murphy of Connecticut replied, “I’m not sure that exact numbers of troops back home or in Iraq is going to make a difference if the American people feel like there is a plan of action for handing over control of that country to the Iraqis.”

“I think if there’s confidence among the American people that we’ve changed course and have begun to hand over control of Iraq to self governance, then there’ll be a level of satisfaction that politicians heard what voters were trying to say on Tuesday,” Murphy said.

Sen.-elect Bernie Sanders, independent socialist of Vermont, said the lesson of his landslide victory last week was that, “The American people want our troops coming home in a responsible way as soon as possible.” Sanders brushed off the question of how voters would react if troops were still in Iraq in 2007 or 2008

“The people have spoken, they want fundamental changes, they want our troops home responsibly and as quickly as possible and I certainly hope that happens,” he said Monday.

In coming months, the Democratic majority in Congress will see if they need to do more than “hope that happens.”