Even before they cast symbolic votes against the Iraq war, newly empowered congressional Democrats are clamoring for a chance to limit and eventually end US involvement in a conflict that has killed more than 3,000 troops. “Will I vote for a nonbinding resolution? Yes, but it’s insufficient,” says first-term Representative Joe Sestak, author of one of more than a dozen competing proposals that would impose a deadline for the withdrawal of US troops.
“I think eventually without a question that we will have the House move to that position,” the former three-star admiral added. “The country is already there.”
Sestak spoke in an interview just off the House floor, which will serve as a nationally televised stage this week for a marathon debate over US President George W. Bush’s war policy.
A vote is expected by week’s end on a nonbinding measure that expresses disapproval of the president’s recent decision to dispatch an additional 21,500 military personnel to Iraq. The measure also affirms support for the troops.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic leadership have firmed up support for the measure by repeatedly promising it will be followed by binding legislation.
“Our goal is to end the war,” one Democrat quoted Pelosi as saying at a recent private caucus.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has pursued the same course, hoping to enlist a bipartisan majority behind a measure that expresses disagreement with Bush’s plans. Republicans have so far blocked consideration of the resolution.
Two Democrats have said they will oppose the resolution as too weak, even as a first step. But Reid’s office has enlisted the backing of the anti-war organization MoveOn.org for the strategy and defections have been few.
At the same time, pressure has been building.
War critics have told Reid they want to use anti-terrorism legislation that is expected on the Senate floor next month as a way of forcing votes on proposals to end the war.
In the House, the leadership is planning to turn Bush’s request for additional military money into a debate next month over the war.
Democratic Representative John Murtha, who heads a subcommittee with jurisdiction over defense spending, told reporters he hopes to add a provision to the bill that would forbid the Pentagon from sending additional troops “unless they have adequate training and unless they have adequate equipment.”
Murtha said he believes the Army may have no units that can meet those standards, meaning Bush’s attempt to increase the number of troops in the war would be checked.
The measure also may be amended to forbid creation of any permanent US military bases in Iraq and razing the Abu Ghraib facility that was at the center of a prisoner torture scandal.
Murtha said it is possible the bill will also call for the closing of the facility in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, except in the case of several dozen detainees who will stand trial.
In the complicated politics of the war, the spending bill would face daunting hurdles.
Democrats determined to end the conflict have said they will not approve any more money to keep it going. Republicans who support Bush’s policy would be unlikely to support limits on his power as commander in chief.
Unlike a nonbinding measure, legislation is always subject to a presidential veto.
But opponents of the war, their strength increased in last fall’s congressional elections, say public opinion is moving their way.
“Increasingly, Republicans are uncomfortable and in public disagreement with the president’s plan,” Democratic Representative Tammy Baldwin said.
She said she favors withdrawing the troops “as soon as practicable.”
“The only votes that make a difference to the president is the power of the purse,” said Representative Lynn Woolsey, who called for the war’s end two years ago.
Democratic presidential politics figure in the Iraq debate, too.
In the House, Representative Dennis Kucinich has an 11-point plan to end the war.
Senators Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and Chris Dodd have outlined their own proposals. Senator Joseph Biden has said he will have one, too.
More than a dozen such measures are competing for notice as Congress moves deeper into its war debate; virtually all make the safety of the troops a priority.
Democratic Senator Russell Feingold was the first to introduce a bill on the subject in the current Congress. On the day lawmakers convened last month, he proposed that money for combat troops be cut off after six months.
Senator Edward Kennedy was the first lawmaker to propose legislation denying permission for Bush to increase troop strength.
Representative Sam Farr supports legislation to rescind the authorization that Congress approved in 2002 for the invasion of Iraq, and requiring the withdrawal of troops “in a safe and orderly manner.”
Representative Jim McGovern and others have a bill to begin withdrawals within 30 days and turn all US military facilities over to the Iraqis.
More than 70 members of the House Progressive Caucus announced last week they favor a withdrawal over six months. A group of moderate Democrats has filed legislation requiring greater accountability over funds spent in Iraq.
Some withdrawal measures make exceptions for targeted anti-terrorist activity for US personnel.
Several bills would ban permanent US military bases in Iraq.