War votes target GOP lawmakers
As congressional Democrats move to force President Bush to veto a war spending bill that would start a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq, they are simultaneously pursuing a carefully crafted offensive aimed at another target: Republican lawmakers.
In the charged debate over the war, the strategy aims to achieve Democratic objectives on both policy and political fronts, according to party leaders and aides.
Convinced that Bush will never listen to their calls to bring troops home, senior Democrats have concluded that they must force Republicans to vote again and again in defense of the unpopular war until enough plead with the president to change course.
But Democratic strategists also believe that repeated votes on the war will allow the party to expand its congressional majorities in next year’s elections by continuing to link GOP lawmakers with the president and his war policies.
“It bewilders me why these Republicans have tied themselves so closely to this president.... God bless them,” said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), chairman of the House Democratic Caucus and former head of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
“Our goal is to keep giving them votes” on Iraq, said Emanuel, widely considered one of Capitol Hill’s savviest political tacticians.
The Democratic withdrawal plan is scheduled for a vote today in the House and Thursday in the Senate. A presidential veto is expected within days.
‘The best thing to do’
GOP leaders insist they are taking the responsible position by opposing Democratic attempts to set an arbitrary timeline for withdrawing U.S. combat forces.
“Our members are doing their best to try to figure out what’s the best thing to do, as opposed to what is the popular thing to do,” said House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.).
He also argued that despite polls showing support for the Democratic position, public attitudes could change as the dispute over war funding drags on.
Vice President Dick Cheney pressed that case Tuesday, accusing Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) of playing politics with the war.
“Leaders should make decisions based on the security interests of our country, not on the interests of their political party,” Cheney said after meeting with GOP senators at the Capitol.
Reid -- who shot back that he was “not going to get into a name-calling match with the administration’s chief attack dog” -- has openly discussed the potential political advantages of pushing antiwar legislation.
“We’re going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war,” he said recently.
But Reid and other Democratic leaders say their push to ratchet up pressure on GOP lawmakers also reflects a belief that such a strategy is the only way to end a disastrous war that the president won’t abandon.
“There are only three ways that we’re going to bring about a change in direction on the Iraqi war,” said Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.), an antiwar lawmaker who chairs the House Appropriations Committee and helped draft the current plan tying a timeline for withdrawal to Bush’s request for about $100 billion in emergency war money.
“The first is if the president has sort of the ‘St. Paul on the road to Damascus’ conversion in his views. I don’t see that happening any time soon. The second is to muster sufficient votes to override a presidential veto. I don’t see that happening any time soon,” Obey said.
“The only avenue open to us is to try to create enough pressure
Obey, first elected to the House in 1969, often compares the current political environment to the Watergate scandal, when President Nixon ultimately resigned after key congressional Republicans told him he had lost the confidence of members of his own party.
Since February, Reid has orchestrated more than half a dozen Iraq-related votes in the Senate. He pursued votes on a nonbinding measure opposing the president’s “surge” when he knew he didn’t have the votes to overcome a GOP filibuster.
In the House, Democrats have had two Iraq-related votes in the last two months.
Thus far, Republicans have largely remained unified. Only two GOP senators and two GOP representatives crossed the aisle to support the Democratic withdrawal plan last month.
Even some Republicans who have expressed misgivings about Bush’s Iraq policy and face potentially tough reelection fights next year are sticking with the party’s opposition to a congressionally mandated withdrawal.
“I feel very comfortable where I am on the issue,” said Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who has said she opposes Bush’s escalation of troop levels in Iraq.
Potential cost of unity
Democrats see the GOP unity playing directly into their hands.
Although polls show Republican voters remaining supportive of Bush and the war, independents -- who were critical to Democratic success at the polls last year -- are increasingly disaffected.
In a recent Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg poll, 80% of independents said the troop surge had made the situation in Iraq worse or had made no impact.
“The problem is that the president has posed the issue in ways that ... unite Republicans but drive everyone else away,” said Democratic pollster Stanley B. Greenberg. “They can try to maintain unity. That may be a victory for the president.... It is not a very good strategy for congressional candidates.”
Greenberg said that in polling he conducted in 50 competitive House districts, including 19 held by Republicans, he found strong support among independents for congressional action to compel troop reductions.
Across the country, Democratic campaign strategists, backed by antiwar groups such as MoveOn.org, are seeking to highlight the Iraq votes of Collins and two other GOP senators up for reelection next year in states where opposition to the Iraq war runs high -- New Hampshire’s John E. Sununu and Minnesota’s Norm Coleman.
“We have to offer Republicans a choice: Help to end the war or face political extinction,” said Tom Matzzie, MoveOn’s Washington director.
There are no signs Democrats plan to let up.
In a recent memo to House Democratic leaders, Emanuel offered his colleagues the following advice: “Remind the country that congressional Republicans are willing to rubber-stamp the president’s stay-the-course policies but have no plan for Iraq.”