Antiwar lawmakers waiting on November

Times Staff Writer

The antiwar rhetoric from congressional Democrats remained as sharp as ever Tuesday as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus came to Capitol Hill to testify about progress in Iraq.

But underscoring the partisan deadlock over the war, even some staunch critics acknowledged that the drive for legislation to withdraw U.S. troops was in effect over.

Democrats who have struggled since becoming the majority last year to force a pullout now point to the fall election as the only hope for changing U.S. policy in Iraq.


“It is clear that we do not have the votes,” said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who was among the first Senate Democrats to push for a binding troop withdrawal timeline. “The American people are going to speak in November.”

Kerry and other Democrats have repeatedly failed over the last year to persuade more than a few Republicans, who can block legislation in the Senate with a filibuster, to break with President Bush and force him to bring troops home.

Not every antiwar lawmaker has accepted the futility of insisting on a congressionally mandated withdrawal.

“We should not be waiting around,” said Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.), one of the leading advocates of a pullout. “We must redeploy our troops to break the paralysis that now grips U.S. strategy in the region.”

In the House, leaders of the influential Out of Iraq Caucus, who last year helped push congressional Democrats to back a timeline for withdrawing troops, are, like Feingold, also threatening to oppose any additional funding for the war.

The House is scheduled to consider Bush’s next war funding request in May.

But with many lawmakers looking to focus on legislation to provide additional aid to Americans hard-hit by the faltering economy, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) has thus far refused to endorse a new legislative fight over money for military operations in Iraq.

And last week, Pelosi, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and 12 other senior Democrats did not even mention a mandatory troop withdrawal in a two-page letter they sent to Bush calling for a new strategy in Iraq.

Instead, the Democratic leaders urged the president to intensify efforts to encourage reconciliation among Iraq’s political leaders and to focus on broader initiatives to deal with instability in Afghanistan, Pakistan and the Middle East.

The diminished focus on a forced pullout offers a marked contrast to the defiance that Democrats brought to their drive last spring to pass a war funding bill that would require Bush to start bringing troops home.

But it reflects a year of failures to enact any meaningful limits on the president’s prosecution of the war.

Nearly every time Democrats tried to push legislation mandating a withdrawal, GOP leaders successfully rallied their caucus to block it.

The last Democratic move to limit funding for the war, in December, which came as violence was waning in Iraq and some voters were turning their attention elsewhere, attracted fewer votes in the Senate than a similar attempt seven months earlier.

Republican lawmakers -- led by Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the party’s presumptive presidential nominee -- remain almost unanimously opposed to any attempt to force a change of strategy in Iraq.

On Tuesday, Democratic senators continued to sharply criticize the war while Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, appeared before the Senate armed services and foreign relations panels.

“Has the war in Iraq made America safer?” Reid asked on the Senate floor. “There is no question that it has not. The surge may have provided a temporary window for the Iraqi government to make progress, but it is becoming increasingly clear every day that the Iraqi government has squandered that opportunity. Even now, with the war in its sixth year, President Bush has failed to articulate an exit strategy.”

Reid also indicated Tuesday that Senate Democrats would continue to hold votes on war-related bills.

But with little expectation that any meaningful legislation can overcome a Republican filibuster in the Senate, many Democratic lawmakers are looking to achieve other objectives by continuing to talk about Iraq.

Sen. Jack Reed of Rhode Island, one of the architects of last year’s Democratic antiwar initiative, said this week that further congressional debate may have more effect overseas than it would in Washington.

“It’s important to have these debates . . . to send the strongest possible message to the Iraqis,” Reed said.

By increasingly focusing on the cost of the war at a time when American voters are worried about their personal finances, Democrats also are trying to weaken Republicans going into the November election, when they hope to increase their majorities in the House and Senate.

Few believe they will be able to influence the current president, however.

“The commander in chief has incredible authority,” said Sen. Jon Tester of Montana, one of the freshman Democrats swept into Congress in 2006 amid promises to challenge the war.

“It’s going to take the election for the policy to change,” Tester said. “It’s going to take a different president.”