As Democratic leaders took power in Congress on Thursday, cracks were already beginning to show in their united front as activist groups piled on the pressure for them confront President Bush over the war in Iraq.
Bush is all but certain to seek what White House officials called a “surge” of as many as to bring sectarian violence under control, NBC’s Jim Miklaszewski reported Thursday. In a sign that those plans were well under way, the commander of the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit in al-Anbar province told Miklaszewski that a request had already been submitted to extend his unit’s deployment, which had been scheduled to end in March.
Democratic congressional leaders signaled that they would not challenge Bush on the deployment itself, MSNBC’s David Shuster reported, but instead would seek a debate over limiting the size of the deployment and pushing for an eventual drawdown of U.S. troops.
Steny Hoyer of Maryland, the new House Democratic leader, told reporters that he and the new House speaker, Nancy Pelosi of California, had not yet firmed up a policy on the war, pending numerous congressional hearings in the next weeks.
Meanwhile, Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, another member of the House Democratic leadership, stopped short of saying Democrats would seek to end the war, promising only to hold hearings and “ask the questions that our constituents are asking.”
Liberals, some Democrats upset
That infuriated anti-war activists and many Democratic lawmakers who campaigned on a pledge to withdraw the troops quickly.
“It can’t be won militarily,” Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., the new chairman of the Appropriations subcommittee on defense, said Thursday in an interview with NBC’s Brian Williams.
Murtha, a decorated war veteran whose early dissent over the war was credited with galvanizing the Democrats’ election campaign, took the unusual step Thursday of posting a personal entry on the HuffingtonPost blog saying he would hold hearings Jan. 17 to seek to cut off funding for new troops.
“I will be recommending an aggressive pursuit of action that will allow us to reduce our military presence in Iraq at the soonest practicable date,” Murtha wrote, adding in an interview with the site’s editor, Arianna Huffington: “Money is the only way we can stop it for sure.”
Murtha told Williams that the hearings would establish “that it was a mistake to go in, and we’re going to prove also that we can’t sustain this kind of deployment.”
Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who organized the Democrats’ victorious Senate campaign, echoed Murtha’s concerns.
“If we simply continue to police a civil war, even with 20,000 more troops, soon after they leave and the Sunnis and Shiites continue fighting with each other, we haven’t accomplished anything,” Schumer said in an interview with NBC News.
Anti-war protesters led by Cindy Sheehan, whose son was killed in Iraq in 2004, disrupted a news conference Wednesday by House Democratic leaders. After the lawmakers retreated into the Capitol, Sheehan took advantage of the open microphone to warn Democrats that organized protests, beginning with a demonstration Thursday in Washington, would grow if they did not become more “confrontational” with Bush over the war.
“We elected them to bring the troops home, stop funding the war and for accountability,” Sheehan said. “We’re here to tell them we’re holding their feet to the fire as much as we held the Republicans’ feet to the fire.”
Republicans cry foul over procedure
At the same time, Pelosi and the new Senate Democratic leader, Harry Reid of Nevada, were coming under heavy criticism from Republicans, who accused them of abandoning their campaign pledge to govern in a bipartisan spirit.
Pelosi was expected to move quickly on what she calls a “First Hundred Hours” agenda, seeking speedy passage of a package of Democratic initiatives to approve the recommendations of the commission that investigated the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, raise the minimum wage and funding for embryonic stem cell research, restrict prescription drug costs and rein in lobbyists.
Pelosi planned to do it without Republican input, however, cutting off their power to attach amendments to the bills, even though she promised during the campaign to consult and cooperate with Republicans.
“When I’ve seen the reports that have come forward about the plans for this opening-day package and the lack of consultation with the minority, I am very disappointed,” Rep. David Dreier, R-Calif., told reporters at the Capitol.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., also complained that the Republicans were being shut out of the process.
“In the first hundred hours in ’94, when Republicans took over, they did allow amendments,” McCain said in an interview Thursday on NBC’s TODAY show. “The Democrats said if they gained power that they would allow amendments, and they’re certainly not in the first hundred hours.
“I think that’s a mistake,” McCain added. “But they’re in power.”
NBC’s Brian Williams, David Gregory, Matt Lauer and Jim Miklaszewski and MSNBC-TV’s David Shuster contributed to this report.