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Why Congress didn't bring the troops home

To a crescendo of clicking cameras, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi stepped before a row of shimmering U.S. flags last March to make an announcement Americans had been waiting four months to hear.

November's elections had swept Democrats into power on a wave of frustration with the Iraq war. Now, flanked by three committee chairmen in her ceremonial Capitol office, the San Francisco congresswoman prepared to unveil the party's plan to bring the troops home.

"The American people called for a new direction," the speaker said, trying to give voice to the historic moment. "That's what this bill does."

There was just one problem. Pelosi had no answer for a simple question: Would the plan get any GOP support?

"I'm the last person to ask about Republican votes," she said curtly.

The speaker's dismissive comment drew little attention that morning. But it was telling. Today, the legislative drive against the war -- the most intense on Capitol Hill since the Vietnam era -- is all but over. As Wisconsin Sen. Russ Feingold, a leading antiwar Democrat, bluntly put it: "We have made no progress."

What happened?

The answer lies partly in the slim Democratic majority and a determined Republican president.

But it was the new Democratic majority's inability to work across the aisle that ultimately ensured failure.

Like the Republicans they had replaced, senior Democrats chose confrontation over cooperation.

They squandered opportunities to work with Republicans unhappy with the president.

And, under pressure from their antiwar base, they tried to bully their rivals.

"Even now, I fail to understand how we think we can stop the war unless we bring in Republicans," said Hawaii Rep. Neil Abercrombie, one of the liberal Democrats who challenged his party's strategy.

Unintended outcome

Democrats -- and even many Republicans -- had expected a far different result.

When GOP senators sat down for a tense luncheon in the Capitol's wood-paneled Mansfield Room last January, their party was in turmoil.

President Bush's decision to send additional troops to Iraq, combined with the party's election losses, infuriated many lawmakers. As Vice President Dick Cheney sat silently, a heated debate erupted.

Virginia Sen. John W. Warner, a white-haired veteran of two wars, rose to express deep concern that the U.S. military was caught in a civil war in Iraq. On the other side, Arizona's John McCain and South Carolina's Lindsey Graham passionately warned that retreat would spell disaster.

"It was a very difficult time," recalled Graham, who struggled that afternoon to prevent a full-scale revolt. "Republicans wanted to drop Iraq like a hot potato."

Senate Democrats were trying to capitalize on the dissent with a resolution that would simply express opposition to the troop buildup.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a conservative Democrat from Nevada who had worked often with Republicans, turned to Warner.

His decision to effectively cede control of the war debate to a lawmaker from the president's party was the calculation of a veteran tactician. Democrats had taken control of the Senate by the narrowest of margins, 51-49. (The chamber's two independents typically side with the Democrats.) If they wanted to force the president to do anything, they would need as many as a dozen Republicans to overcome a filibuster.

But Reid, a former boxer, was also a fierce partisan who had excelled as a leader by keeping Democrats together. That impulse would be decisive.

As Warner walked the hallways of the Senate trying to find GOP votes and proposed weakening the resolution, the staunchest antiwar members of Reid's caucus grew increasingly restive.

Within days, Feingold said he would oppose the resolution. So too did Connecticut's Christopher J. Dodd, another liberal Democrat. Reid, who was skeptical that Warner could deliver enough Republicans, cut off debate. GOP senators killed the measure on a procedural vote.

After just four weeks, the drive to build consensus was effectively over.

"It changed the political complexion of the debate and the environment," said Maine Sen. Olympia J. Snowe, a moderate Republican who had worked on the resolution.

The quick demise of the anti-surge resolution prompted Democrats to focus inward. The party, which had done little to develop a consensus antiwar strategy, was in turmoil.

Grass-roots groups that had helped elect Democrats were clamoring for legislation to restrict war funding and compel a swift withdrawal. So, too, was the nearly 80-strong House Out of Iraq caucus, one of whose leaders, Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Los Angeles), would get in a shouting match with Pelosi at a packed Democratic caucus meeting.

Other Democrats were reluctant to try to end the war by limiting money. "We didn't want to send a message that we weren't going to fund the troops," said Michigan Sen. Carl Levin, the Senate Armed Services Committee chairman.

Pelosi turned to House Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey to write a bill that would bring Democrats together.

Obey, an old-school liberal from rural northern Wisconsin, was a fierce critic of the war. But the 38-year veteran was also someone who could cut deals with Republicans. Obey scorned doctrinaire antiwar Democrats who "didn't want to get any specks on those white robes of theirs." In one confrontation with a soldier's mother who asked Obey to stop paying for the war, the lawmaker exploded in a rant against "idiot liberals."

Republican leaders -- still struggling to keep their caucus from splintering -- worried that Obey would reach out to GOP moderates. "If they had put their hands out . . . there were probably 50 or 60 of my members who could have been there," House Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio said recently. "It could have been a very different outcome."

That was not the task Pelosi handed Obey.

The new speaker, who like Reid had united her party against hard-nosed GOP majorities, had never chaired a committee or drafted major legislation that required bipartisan compromise. She had a frosty relationship with Republican lawmakers. Now, she made it clear to Obey that she wanted a withdrawal timeline.

Drafts upon drafts

Obey and his staff hunkered down in his office for weeks, poring over scores of Democratic proposals. With Obey dictating language over his senior aide's shoulder, they produced draft after draft. Most of them went into a shredder.

Then, over the first weekend in March, they reached for a little-noticed bill filed just days earlier by Rep. Howard Berman (D-Valley Village) that linked pullout dates to the performance of the Iraqi government.

The war-funding bill that Pelosi announced at the March news conference would require the administration to begin withdrawing troops no later than March 2008, and to complete the pullout by August.

Democrats would triumphantly pass the most sweeping antiwar legislation since the Vietnam War. But it had attracted just two Republican votes in the Senate and two in the House, not nearly enough to override a presidential veto.

The Democratic response was to threaten to bury their Republican foes at the polls.

New York Sen. Charles E. Schumer, the combative head of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, gleefully touted plummeting GOP poll numbers. "They're going to have to break because they're going to have to look . . . extinction in the eye."

Democratic leaders now openly ridiculed compromise proposals from Republicans.

When Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, a soft-spoken Republican and former Foreign Relations chairman, in late June made an earnest call for withdrawing troops, he got a visit from Bush's national security advisor within 48 hours. Democratic leaders ignored him and shut down debate on his proposal to require the Bush administration to submit a withdrawal plan.

Senior Democrats insisted the measure was too weak and would give Republicans political cover.

On the other side of the Capitol, Democrats were attacking their own. Hawaii's Abercrombie, a former Vietnam War protester, was shouted down at a meeting with fellow antiwar Democrats to discuss a similar bill he drafted.

"This was taken as a sign that suddenly I wasn't on the road to Damascus anymore. I had fallen from the true path," Abercrombie said. Pelosi, under pressure from the Out of Iraq caucus, prevented his bill from ever coming up for a vote.

A whiff of revenge

Many Democrats wrongly believed Republicans would break over the August recess when a well-funded antiwar campaign would target many in their districts. This heavy-handed approach had been a hallmark of the way Republicans had run Capitol Hill. Now, GOP lawmakers recoiled at the withdrawal timeline and the smash-mouth tactics.

No Democratic withdrawal measure ever won more than four GOP votes in the House or Senate.

By September, when Army Gen. David H. Petraeus gave Congress an upbeat report about diminishing violence, the Democratic legislative campaign against the war was effectively dead.

Today, Pelosi professes surprise that so few GOP lawmakers joined the Democratic antiwar effort. "I didn't foresee that," she said.

But neither she nor Reid express any regrets.

"We tried everything except yoga," Reid said recently, sitting by a fire in his office on the other side of the Capitol. "Republicans weren't looking for middle ground. . . . We felt we were on track with what the American people wanted."

But, the Congress that began 2007 with a relatively high 35% approval rating now rates just 22%, according to Gallup surveys.

"One of the many messages sent by voters in 2006 was that they were unhappy with the war in Iraq," said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, a moderate Republican. "Another message that was sent and not heard was that they were tired of partisan gridlock."

noam.levey@latimes.com

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