Will Congress Stand Firm on Withdrawal?

by Paul Hogarth on March 15, 2007

Yesterday, the Senate voted 89-9 to open debate on Majority Leader Harry Reid’s binding resolution that (if passed) would provide the first critical step in getting us out of Iraq. But while only the most right-wing Republicans bought the line that “to debate this would embolden the enemy,” it’s uncertain if there are the 60 votes to bring the resolution to a vote – and then pass it.

In the House, the problem is with conservative Democrats. Pressure from the “Blue Dogs” caused Nancy Pelosi to remove language that addresses a potential invasion of Iran, which ironically made at least one liberal say he now won’t vote for the resolution. And while most progressives have agreed to compromise and support an amended resolution for the sake of getting it passed out of Congress, some “Blue Dogs” are saying they still won’t support the resolution because it provides an actual deadline to withdraw from Iraq. In other words, there’s no pleasing these people.

Meanwhile, the American people – even in the red states – want us out of Iraq. Indiana Congressman Brad Ellsworth is one of the nineteen Democrats who are hedging because the resolution calls for a deadline. But as he told a reporter, in the 26 town hall meetings that he’s held in his district, more people wanted to end the war than those who support the current course.

It’s no longer a question of “red-state” Democrats who face a different reality than those who represent liberal places like the Bay Area. The war is so unpopular across the country that almost everyone wants us out. The only question is if Congress will have the resolve to stand up to the President – and the right-wing noise machine.

In the Senate, it was refreshing to see so many Republicans vote to open debate – and to have the Democratic caucus (most of whom had voted for the War) unified behind withdrawal. “I support the plan because it sets a clear time frame to get our troops out,” said Bob Menendez (D-New Jersey.) “Benchmarks without consequences are merely aspirations, and nothing more. It’s long past time for us to change the course in Iraq.”

But then Republicans who had voted to open debate spoke out against the resolution. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, who is considered a moderate, agreed that to stay the course is intractable – but to withdraw sends the message that “our opponents can wait us out.” He then said that it was not proper for a legislative body to “micromanage the conduct of the war,” as he implied that Congress shouldn’t be directing our troops.

The Senate will probably vote today, as Reid said that he will allow various amendments to be proposed. Blue-state Republicans who are up for re-election next year like Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu of New Hampshire and Norm Coleman of Minnesota need to be especially targeted for there to be any hope of passage. UPDATE: The Senate resolution has failed 48-50. Only one Republican, Gordon Smith, voted yes. 3 Democrats — Ben Nelson, David Pryor and Joe Lieberman — voted no. Tim Johnson could not vote.

In the House, Democrats hold a wider majority – but a small band of conservatives in the party (known as the Blue Dogs) are threatening to whittle the resolution down to nothing. Already, Nancy Pelosi agreed to one of their demands – remove language that would require President Bush to come back to Congress if he wants authorization to invade Iran.

First, the Constitution requires him to do so anyway – but the Blue Dogs (and AIPAC) raised such a stink that it would hurt Israel that Pelosi chose to drop it. Second, it had the ironic effect of making Virginia liberal Jim Moran announce that he can no longer support the resolution. Already, nine progressives have said they won’t vote for the resolution – although most are inclined to still support it for the sake of party unity.

Even without the Iran provision, it’s still important to pass the resolution in the House because it sets an actual deadline to get out of Iraq. If that were to happen, it would be a huge – albeit incremental – victory. But even that compromise isn’t good enough for some Blue Dog Democrats.

Dan Boren of Oklahoma says he will oppose “any legislation” that sets a clear deadline out of Iraq. Even if Democrats control Congress on paper, some of them are so conservative that they might as well be Republicans – and at a certain point you just can’t compromise with them. When Boren’s dad was in the Senate, he was one of the reasons why Bill Clinton couldn’t get anything done in his first two years with a Democratic Congress.

Ironically, the Blue Dogs were formed in 1995 by two Louisiana Democrats who later became Republicans. At the height of the Newt Gingrich Revolution, they believed that the Democratic leadership was squeezing them “blue.” They are the descendants of the “boll weevil” Democrats of the 1980’s, who crossed the aisle to help Ronald Reagan get his agenda passed. Their chairman, Phil Gramm of Texas, also became a Republican. In other words, forget about pleasing these people – they’ll just backstab you later.

Fortunately, there aren’t many Democrats like Dan Boren left – because so many white Southern conservatives have switched to the Republican Party. Of the nineteen Democrats who are holding out because of the resolution’s deadline requirement, eleven are from the South.

White Southern Democrats have always been an albatross around the party’s efforts to pass progressive change – but as more of them defect, they become less part of the Democratic coalition. While it’s not entirely the case, the vast majority of Democrats who won in the last election were from blue states where they can “afford” to be progressive. It’s moments like these that you realize how important it is for the Democratic Party to build a “non-Southern” coalition.

The remaining eight Democrats who are still holding out come from places where opposition to the war is higher, and public pressure at the grassroots is more likely to have an impact. They are Michael Arcuri of New York, Melissa Bean of Illinois, Joe Donnelly, Baron Hill and Brad Ellsworth of Indiana, Collin Peterson of Minnesota, John Salazar of Colorado and Joe Sestak of Pennsylvania. For these people, there is simply no excuse not to support a resolution that will bring our troops home.

CORRECTION: Joe Sestak supports the House legislation, and his name was inadvertently circulated by various bloggers on the list of “saboteurs.” For more details, click here.

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