The Issue of Iraq Policy Change Takes Hold in Washington

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President Bush says his administration is open to new ideas on Iraq. And it appears there will be no shortage of ideas now that the Democrats are headed to power in Congress, and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group is about to release its findings.


It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.


And I'm Renee Montagne. Good morning.

Here's one sign of the priorities of the new Democratic Congress. The likely Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi has named one person she wants as her deputy. Pelosi is hoping her Democratic colleagues will give a leadership position to a congressman, John Murtha, who's spoken out strongly against the war in Iraq.

INSKEEP: As Democrats choose their leaders, President Bush travels to Asia this week. He leaves behind, for now, an election that threw his party out of control of Congress for the last two years of his presidency. To talk about all this and more, we're joined, as we are every Monday, by NPR's Cokie Roberts. Cokie, good morning.

COKIE ROBERTS: Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: President Bush is saying his administration is open to new ideas on Iraq. What's likely to happen, though?

ROBERTS: Well, he is going to be meeting with this bipartisan group led by former Secretary of State Jim Baker and former Congressman Lee Hamilton, looking at solutions or probable solutions to what is going on in Iraq. And his advisers were all over the airwaves yesterday saying yes, of course, the administration will listen to anything.

Look, this White House is well aware, despite what Karl Rove said to Time magazine, that corruption was really what voters were voting on in this last election; the White House knows that this was Iraq, an election about Iraq, and that they need to do something about it. In a poll in Newsweek magazine, after all of the events of last week - with the firing of Rumsfeld, the making nice with the Democrats, all of that - the president is at his lowest approval rating - 31 percent say they approve of him - in that poll of all of his time in the presidency. Now some of that is about losing, Americans don't like losers. But it's mainly about Iraq. Eighty-five percent - 85 percent - say that the major reason for the Democratic success was a disapproval of the handling -of the president's handling of Iraq. And seven in 10 say Bush's overall job performance was the reason for the Democratic victory. So clearly this was a referendum on the president.

INSKEEP: Well, now what do Democrats have to do to maintain the support of the independent voters who put them in control of Congress last week?

ROBERTS: It's going to be very tricky. They're probably best off by pushing their domestic agenda, which is wildly popular - a boost in the minimum wage, helping pay for prescription drugs. Not rolling back the tax cuts, by the way, according to the polls. And they have to be very careful on Iraq because though the public thinks it's the most important issue, more than half in the Newsweek poll said they were concerned the Democrats would push too fast on troop withdrawal. And for Independents, the most important thing is always that the parties don't bicker so much and that they don't seem to always be fighting with each other, getting nothing done, and that they don't appear to be bickering among themselves. And for Democrats, that's always a tough one.

INSKEEP: Well, Cokie, what can we learn in the coming days, as Democrats maybe not bicker but certainly contest among themselves to find out who their leaders will be?

ROBERTS: Well, as Renee said earlier, Speaker-to-be Nancy Pelosi issued a letter this weekend praising John Murtha, who was her campaign manager for majority leader, praising his stand against the war on Iraq. Now she doesn't call on other members to vote for him for majority leader, which he's running for, but it is seen as a strong endorsement of him. And that comes as something of a surprise. Even her own people didn't expect it.

The Minority Whip Steny Hoyer, who is seen as more moderate on Iraq, is running for the job of majority leader, and he's done all the inside work that is normally the way you get these jobs. He's done that work very well. He's gone to more than 80 congressional districts. He's given a half a million dollars to people running for Congress. And when he went to the White House last week with Nancy Pelosi to meet with the president, it looked like he had the majority leader job wrapped up. Now if he does win, there's going to be some bad blood between the top leader and the second leader, and that gets the Democrats off to a tough start.

INSKEEP: Okay, thanks very much. That's analysis, as we get every Monday, from NPR's Cokie Roberts.

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