Rep. John Murtha is quickly emerging as one of President Bush’s most formidable foes in the Iraq war debate.
Many Democrats, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, match Murtha’s fiery opposition to Bush’s policies. But the Marine combat veteran’s prowess on military matters, strong relationships with Republicans and — most important — control of the Pentagon’s spending bills has put him at the forefront of the debate.
The Pennsylvania Democrat is leading the charge among members of his party to end the war by limiting funding. That fight, which will probably be waged next month, is expected to overshadow this week’s battle over a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush’s troop buildup.
Part kindly Irish Catholic grandfather and part political pit bull with two Purple Hearts in his pocket, Murtha seems the Democrats’ best chance of using the budget to curtail the war without appearing to be leaving troops in the lurch.
“Many of the roads (in Congress) lead through Murtha,” said Darrell West, a political science professor at Brown University. “So Bush has to deal with him.”
Murtha retains clout among his Democratic colleagues, especially on defense issues, despite losing a postelection challenge to Rep. Steny Hoyer, D-Md., to become majority leader. Hoyer and Pelosi, D-Calif., have tapped Murtha to address caucus meetings on the issue of the war and used him to assure the more liberal members of their base that Democrats will do everything they can to bring troops home.
So far, Democrats and Republicans alike are listening closely.
“Do most people have enormous respect for Mr. Murtha? Oh, yes,” said Pelosi.
By mid-March, Murtha will offer legislation that he says would set such stringent rules on combat deployments that Bush would have no choice but to begin bringing troops home.
His legislation would dictate how long troops can stay, the equipment they use and whether any money could be spent to expand military operations into Iran. Murtha says few units could meet the high standards he envisions, meaning Bush’s plan to keep some 160,000 troops in Iraq for months on end would be thwarted.
Under his plan, he says, Democrats would be helping and not hurting troops by making sure they have what they need before being thrown into combat.
“This vote will be the most important vote in changing the direction of the war,” Murtha, D-Pa., told an anti-war group in an interview broadcast on the Internet Thursday.
“The president could veto it, but then he wouldn’t have any money,” he later said.
Murtha, 74, joined the Marine Corps during the Korean war and volunteered to return to active duty in Vietnam, where he earned his two Purple Hearts — awards given to troops wounded or killed in action.
On Capitol Hill for 33 years, the retired Marine colonel rarely seeks the limelight, often avoiding reporters and speaking on the House floor only to debate the annual defense spending bill.
In November 2005, he stunned his colleagues by turning against the war. Three years after voting in favor of the Iraq invasion, Murtha declared in a tearful speech: “It’s time to bring them home.”
But it is his reputation as a defense hawk that makes him such a threat to Bush. As a staunch supporter of military spending in the past, Murtha has earned a strong alliance of Republican friends, who say they are watching to see precisely what he proposes.
“I will say it’s an interesting concept,” said Sen. John Warner, a leading Republican defense figure who opposes sending more troops to Iraq.
“He is a fighter,” Warner, R-Va., later added. “Be he right or wrong, he is a fighter and that says a lot.”
Rep. Wayne Gilchrest, one of about a dozen House Republicans who announced this week they oppose Bush’s Iraq strategy, said he thinks Congress should seriously consider Murtha’s ideas.
“To brush these (proposals) off the table is irresponsible,” said Gilchrest, R-Md.
Murtha also has his opponents.
“While Rep. Murtha is unveiling his plan to choke off funding for American troops serving in harm’s way, Republicans like Rep. Sam Johnson — a distinguished Vietnam War veteran — are on the House floor explaining the demoralizing impact that the majority’s political maneuvers will have on our men and women in uniform,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
Bush this week seemed keenly aware of Murtha’s political momentum. In recent days, the president shrugged off the significance of House vote expected Friday on a symbolic resolution stating opposition to his war plans. Instead, the president has focused his sights on the upcoming war supplemental.
Bush says he needs $93 billion more to continue paying for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through Sept. 30; the military is expected to run out of money by May, making passage of the bill critical.
“We have a responsibility, Republicans and Democrats have a responsibility to give our troops the resources they need to do their job and the flexibility they need to prevail,” Bush said in speech Thursday.