It was a gray and slushy day in the nation’s capitol but inside the Capitol building a cozy wood fire was burning in the fireplace in the speaker’s lobby right off the House floor, a perfect day to stay indoors and debate the war in Iraq.
At issue: a non-binding resolution opposing President Bush’s Iraq policy.
The fact that the war will continue as long as the congressional funding continues seemed to put the members we interviewed in the speaker’s lobby in an especially somber frame of mind.
There was no feeling that the Democrats were about to score a victory they could cheer about – partly because members know that they will have to vote on another $100 billion in supplemental funding for the war next month.
Not an impeachment mood
The mood Tuesday was not the one observed in 1998 during the worst of the Clinton impeachment battle, when House members were screaming and yelling at each other on the House floor. Instead it was gloomy, fatalistic.
Before members buckled down to a non-stop series of five-minute speeches Tuesday, all 435 filed in to vote on the “rule” – the procedure that allowed the debate to take place – with no Republican alternative allowed.
As they came off the floor into the speaker’s lobby after voting, members pondered how much the debate meant.
It’s not polite to ask a House member if his day’s work really matters, but some members were wondering whether the resolution would have any impact on the president.
“This is like theater,” said one Democratic House member who opposes the war but did not want to be identified by name. “People will get up on the floor and make sententious statements – and then we’ll walk out of here and we’ll still be in a war.”
'Looking for a rationale'
Republican Rep. Jim Walsh, who almost lost his upstate New York district last November, will vote for the resolution.
We asked Walsh: will any minds in the House be changed over the next three days of speechmaking?
“I think on our side it will change a few,” Walsh said. His hunch was that some Republicans who were at first leaning toward voting for the resolution might vote “no.”
Some of his GOP colleagues have come up to Walsh to ask him how he’ll vote. “If they’re asking me what I’m doing and why, then they’re looking for a rationale” for voting for the resolution. And perhaps they haven’t yet found it.
Will the outcome of the vote on the resolution – assuming it gets about 280 votes on Friday – change Bush’s mind? “If he is surprised by the number of Republican votes for this (resolution), it might affect his thinking,” Walsh said.
But he noted that the troop surge is already underway and won’t be affected by what the House does. The key test is next month’s vote on funding the war. Voting for this week’s non-binding resolution is not an indicator of the vote on funding, he said.
“Funding is a much higher standard – especially for Republicans,” Walsh said. And yet he is facing pressure back home in Syracuse: the mood in his district is not improving. “People are more impatient, much more than a year ago or two years ago.”
Walsh said constituents are reacting to “the constant drumbeat of death and destruction; the lack of any positive news.”
Asked to assess the debate’s impact on Bush, Rep. Joe Courtney, D-Conn., a freshman who won last November largely due to the war, said the president had seemed “still very dug in” when he addressed House Democrats at their retreat two Saturdays ago. Courtney saw in Bush “no flicker of acknowledgment that he would change.”
Despite being elected on a wave of discontent with the war, Courtney signaled that he is not yet ready to support war-ending measures such as the one to be offered by Rep. Jerry Nadler, D-N.Y. that would require Bush to withdraw the troops by Dec. 31 of this year.
Instead Courtney is sympathetic to the “readiness” approach of Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa. who wants to find a way to condition funding for the troops on the Army chief of staff certifying that specific units bound for Iraq have sufficient training and equipment before they go.
Among people opposed to the war back in Connecticut is there a rising expectation that Congress will actually cut off funds and end the war? “There’s disagreement even within the anti-war community on how to handle the ($100 billion) supplemental (spending request),” Courtney noted.
He said some Moveon.org activists in his district recently said, “We can’t just leave” Iraq.
How will Courtney vote on the supplemental if the Senate forces House leaders to remove the Murtha “readiness” conditions and it becomes a bare, up-or-down vote on the $100 billion?
“I’ll jump off that bridge when I come to it, or whatever that saying is,” Courtney said, with a note of black humor.
A push to cut off funding
Also voicing some pessimism, but with more passion, was Democratic presidential contender Rep. Dennis Kucinich – who ran for his party’s nomination exactly four years on his opposition to the Iraq war.
“What this means is we pass the non-binding resolution, yet Congress is not truly exercising its authority to end this war. The only way Congress can do that is by cutting off funds,” Kucinich said. “Once the president gets the supplemental he’ll have enough money to continue the war to the very end of his term – and enough money to attack Iran.”
Almost every one of the 233 Democrats in the House is likely to vote for the non-binding resolution. A rare exception is Rep. Jim Marshall of Georgia.
Just before stepping on to the House floor Marshall said the resolution “cannot help our effort in Iraq. It might not hurt, but it could – by telling our soldiers Congress doesn’t think it’s a good idea for them to be doing what they’re doing.”
Marshall warned of the consequences pulling out American troops. “Many of those who want troops pulled out will be terribly upset by the slaughter that will occur as a consequence.”
In his view, the United States “ignited this” situation in Iraq by toppling Saddam Hussein. The United States “has a moral obligation to try to see this through.”
Marshall said, “It’s not going to be a popular vote” when he breaks from most other Democrats to vote against the resolution.
Democratic leaders seemed eager to assure their members that, for now, funding of the war will not be ended.
As the House Rules Committee approved the non-binding resolution Monday night, a veteran Democrat on the committee Rep. Alcee Hastings of Florida pledged that the resolution was “not a first step to cut off funding of the troops.”
Majority Leader Steny Hoyer re-affirmed that up in a briefing for reporters before the Iraq debate started Tuesday, “We’re going to fund the troops… there will be no de-funding of troops in the field, no de-funding which will cause any risk to the troops.”