NPR logo Divided Democrats Back Down on Iraq

Divided Democrats Back Down on Iraq

House Democrats are walking a balance beam when it comes to President Bush's request for another $99 billion for the next seven months of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan.

To the left are those lawmakers who want to end the war now, by cutting off the funding and bringing troops home. On the right are their colleagues who want to keep funding the troops and who say that there can only be one president, and one commander in chief.

And these are not the divisions of the House — they're all just within the Democratic caucus.

So the leaders of that caucus, led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi, are crafting a compromise they hope all Democrats can support, and maybe even a few Republicans.

But it's no easy task. Democrats rode to control of Congress on a wave of voter dissatisfaction with the war. But almost since the Election Night champagne went flat, the new majority has been arguing about how best to put that public sentiment into law.

First, they pressed forward with a nonbinding resolution officially denouncing the war, but expressing full support of the troops. That was a glimpse of the tightrope act to come.

Then, the chairman of the appropriations subcommittee that handles the Pentagon, John Murtha (D-PA), announced he would carefully scour President Bush's supplemental spending request for the war, looking for funds that could be transferred into troop training and equipment. Murtha made his intentions clear: he planned to sap money from the president's surge strategy by devoting it to readiness — an aim members in both parties would have a hard time voting against.

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But that raised a cry from more-conservative Democrats, including Missouri's Ike Skelton, the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, who worried that they would be seen as micro-managing the war and slowing the regular process of rotating troops and providing reinforcements. They said Murtha's plan could be seen as denying funds to the troops already in action in Iraq.

At that point, Speaker Pelosi stepped in and brokered a deal among the major players. She has been consistent in saying that her party will not cut funds for the troops, so she has pulled back from Murtha's plan somewhat. The plan right now is to put some of the new 2007 money (what is called the "urgent supplemental request") into equipment and training for the troops, and also to lay out benchmarks for military readiness.

The new benchmarks will be standards that units must meet before they're deployed. At the same time, Pelosi's plan calls for other benchmarks in Iraq — goals that President Nouri al-Maliki must meet over time and that President Bush must certify as met.

But the compromise has satisfied few, if any, in Pelosi's factious caucus. In fact, one official said, there's a lot of outright anger at the speaker right now among those who see the party's mission to be ending the war as quickly as possible.

But that is not the only impulse among the Democrats. Many fear becoming responsible for a withdrawal that becomes a debacle. Many more are loath to be seen as shortchanging troops still engaged in the field.

And most Democrats agree the war should remain explicitly and clearly the responsibility of the Bush administration.