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Democrats give antiwar a chance

Times Staff Writer

With the House of Representatives headed toward a historic vote Friday to require the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, Democratic leaders are taking their party to a place it hasn’t been since American troops were dying in the jungles of Southeast Asia.

No Congress in more than 30 years has tried to end a war.

The gambit is not without risk for a political party that has spent the three decades since it tried to stop the Vietnam War struggling to prove it is not weak on defense issues. And Democrats are still unsure whether they have the votes to pass the measure, part of a $124-billion war spending bill.

But with public opinion squarely behind them, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and her lieutenants are charging ahead further and faster than even some of the war’s staunchest critics believed possible.

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Most Democrats have embraced a strict timeline for withdrawing U.S. combat forces by next year, a goal that was barely mentioned when the party took over on Capitol Hill in January.

They have brushed aside presidential veto threats and the relentless attacks of congressional Republicans who accuse the majority of undercutting the military and embracing defeat.

“This is huge,” said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of the influential liberal advocacy group MoveOn.org. “We’re going to have a bill that will have a deadline that the president is going to have to sign or veto.”

MoveOn members endorsed the House plan this week.

The legislative drive to force a withdrawal still faces formidable obstacles, including opposition from some liberal lawmakers who want a more aggressive timeline for pulling out troops.

But just 11 weeks after Democrats took power, the House plans to vote Friday on a military spending bill that will require President Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. forces no later than next March. Democrats moved the vote from today to Friday to give themselves more time to round up the 218 votes to pass the withdrawal plan.

On the other side of the Capitol, the Senate Appropriations Committee today will take up the Senate version of the bill, which calls for a withdrawal to begin within 120 days of the bill’s enactment.

Not long ago, such legislation was almost inconceivable.

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Though Democrats were propelled into the congressional majority largely by frustration with the war, party leaders initially downplayed their power to use funding legislation to compel a withdrawal of U.S. forces.

And at the mere mention of military funding, Republicans pounced on Democrats, accusing them of threatening to deprive U.S. soldiers of the equipment and support they needed. The attacks struck a nerve for a party still stinging from years of being considered the less reliable ally of the military.

A generation ago, it was largely Democrats who led the legislative campaign to force an end to the Vietnam War, pushing measure after measure to limit what President Nixon and the military could do in Southeast Asia.

Though legislative bids to compel withdrawals failed, Democratic-controlled Congresses in the early 1970s prohibited U.S. troops from fighting in Cambodia, banned American military operations in Southeast Asia after the 1973 peace agreements, and ultimately cut off funding for South Vietnam after American troops had left.

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The Capitol Hill campaign against the war enjoyed public support at the time. But Democrats paid a price, even as lawmakers from both parties backed restrictions on smaller military operations in ensuing years.

“After the funds were cut off, Democrats became known as the antiwar party,” said John Isaacs, a longtime arms-control advocate who served in Vietnam with the foreign service and worked on Capitol Hill in the mid-'70s. “That ... has hurt Democrats ever since.”

Today, there are lingering signs of Democratic sensitivity.

Last week, Rep. David R. Obey (D-Wis.) -- who has been in Congress since the Vietnam War -- opened an appropriations committee meeting on the war spending bill by chiding his GOP colleagues not to falsely accuse Democrats of having cut off funding for troops in Vietnam.

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But as public pessimism about the president’s war policies has grown, emboldened Democrats have embraced the calls for a withdrawal.

Every week, party leaders show their members polls that highlight public dissatisfaction with the president and support for congressional action. Of particular interest to Democratic leaders is growing pessimism among independents, who were critical to Democratic victories last fall. In a recent Newsweek poll, independents expressed support by nearly 2 to 1 for a withdrawal by fall 2008.

At the same time, Democrats are not now linked to controversial causes like they were during the counterculture and civil rights movements of the 1960s and ‘70s, observed Claremont McKenna College strategic studies professor P. Edward Haley, who has studied congressional involvement in the Vietnam War.

“This stands out as a real catastrophe. There is nothing diverting attention from it,” Haley said. “As a result, Democrats are much more united ... than they ever were during the Vietnam War.”

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As the vote looms, more centrist Democrats -- who were once leery of mandating a troop withdrawal -- are lining up behind the plan and scoffing at Republican charges of being soft.

“It’s a button that President Bush has been pushing ever since 9/11,” said Rep. Adam Smith (D-Wash.), who co-chairs the House New Democrat Coalition. “But that argument certainly has a lot less resilience than it did in 2003 or 2004.”

On Wednesday, the coalition of moderate Democrats endorsed the withdrawal plan.

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noam.levey@latimes.com


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