Thursday, January 11, 2007

Democrats Draw Battle Lines Against Bush's 'Surge'

Key Democrats including Nancy Pelosi, John Murtha and Ted Kennedy have spoken out against increased defense spending and troop escalation. Will they back up their words with actions?

By Alexander Zaitchik

The balloons were still being inflated for the Democrats' inaugural bashes on the Hill last week when the bloody specter of Iraq appeared in the form of Cindy Sheehan. The direct-action peace mom showed up in the Cannon House Office Building last Wednesday with a handful of fellow activists, pamphlets, and no intention of letting the first news conference convened by House Democrats begin and end with yet another thumbs-up "100 Hours" boilerplate. As Rahm Emanuel finished talking up a bill to reduce student loan rates, Sheehan and her supporters made their trademark demands: "De-escalate! Investigate! Troops home now!"

The minor ruckus led Washington Post reporter Dana Milbank to declare that even if the 110th Congress doesn't accomplish much, watching the Democrats wrestle themselves over Iraq policy will at least be "entertaining."

Soldiers in Iraq and their families will likely find less pure entertainment value in this political theater than Milbank. As the president prepares to deliver a speech tonight in which he will announce a 20,000 troop enlargement of America's footprint in Iraq, the newly empowered Democrats remain split over how to stop an escalation and bring to an end the disastrous war many of them voted to authorize more than four years ago.

Party leaders have forcefully put the White House on notice that it faces organized and articulate congressional opposition on Iraq, but it is unclear what shape this opposition will take. Emergency legislation forcing a congressional vote on the latest "surge"? A belated hammer blow to the president's $100+ billion supplementary defense budget request, due in February? Or two years of finger-wagging and solemn resolutions in Washington committee rooms as the body bags pile up in Baghdad?

After a busy first week of the first session in which Iraq deeply overshadowed student loan rates, the question remains: Will the Democrats satisfy themselves with a flurry of subpoena-powered show hearings that do little more than further expose well-known failures and raise the profiles of certain committee chairs? Or will they fulfill their constitutional and electoral mandate to challenge the White House's arrogant claim on the lives of yet more soldiers and the many billions needed to keep the occupation's lights on?

One week in, there are signs blinking in both directions, with momentum building toward action over talk.

It was Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha who again was first in cracking open the Iraq policy pinata. In a Jan. 4 interview, Murtha endorsed the idea of denying some or all of the White House's next supplemental defense funding request of $100 billion. The idea had been bouncing around since the election, mostly associated with members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus like Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who has long maintained the absurdity of opposing a war while continuing to fund it. Soon after Murtha's comments, Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., a CPC colleague of Kucinich's, announced he would push a "long shot" bill to end funding for the war. "The only way we can send a message to the president is by getting right to the heart of the matter -- the purse strings," McGovern, the second-ranking Democrat on the House Rules Committee, told the Boston Globe.

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