Democrats fear that the focus on the war has blurred

Posted in United States | 14-Jun-07 | Author: Jeff Zeleny| Source: International Herald Tribune

US Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, pictured 11 June 2007 in Washington, DC.

WASHINGTON: President George W. Bush had barely left the Capitol after immigration talks there on Tuesday when Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader, walked onto the Senate floor to call for a moment of silence. It was time, Reid said, to pay tribute to American soldiers in Iraq as their death toll reached 3,500.

A short time earlier, Reid convened a conference call with liberal bloggers, offering assurances that Democrats would revive debate over the Iraq war. And he pledged to revive it soon, ending the silence that followed the White House's outmaneuvering of Democrats last month to win more money for the war without a timeline to end it.

"They've been driving this debate very well," Reid said later, speaking of the bloggers who have been pushing for Congress to end the war. "I understand their disappointment. We raised the bar too high."

It has been nearly three weeks since Democrats have held a formal Iraq debate or voted on an Iraq proposal in the House or Senate. Not since they assumed the majority in January has there been such a lull. During the three weeks, congressional approval ratings have fallen, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi said she knew why.

"It's the war, I believe so, it's the war," Pelosi said in a brief interview on Wednesday. "In terms of the issue that the American people want to have resolved, the war is three or four times higher than any other issue."

Some Democrats argue that it is high time for the party to turn its attention to domestic issues — energy legislation, immigration overhaul and lobbying reform — to allay concerns that Democrats have not achieved enough significant accomplishments during the first six months of their majority. But other Democrats are demanding a return to the Iraq debate, which Reid has now pledged to do this month.

The proposals will not be new. Rather, Democrats intend to reprise at least four ideas when the Senate considers the Defense Department policy bill: a measure to reverse the authorization for the Iraq war, set a deadline for troop withdrawal, block money for major combat operations after March 31, 2008, and increase readiness requirements for troops to be sent back to Iraq. "On Iraq," Reid said, "we're going to hold the president's feet to the fire."

Democratic congressional leaders have been stung by the decline in congressional job approval ratings.

A Los Angeles Times/Bloomberg nationwide telephone poll released this week found that 27 percent of Americans approve of the way Congress is handling its job, while 65 percent disapprove. And 29 percent of the more than 1,100 poll respondents, all registered voters, said Democrats were working to change how government is run, compared to 63 percent who said Democrats are governing in a business-as-usual manner. The margin of error was plus or minus four percentage points.

Pelosi said it had been difficult to convince some Democrats that despite their majority, they are limited in how they can change the president's Iraq policy.

"Some Democrats understand that we don't have the signature and we can only do so much," she said. "Others are just very unhappy. I include myself among them, being very unhappy that we have not been able to bring the war to an end."

With September being highlighted as a critical review period for Iraq policy — General David Petraeus, the top American commander, is to report to Congress on the progress of the current troop buildup — Democratic leaders had initially hoped to tackle their domestic priorities in late spring and early summer. But on Wednesday, Democratic leaders said they would not wait.

"The American people cannot and should not have to wait until later this year for changes in your flawed Iraq policy," Pelosi and Reid wrote Wednesday in a letter to the White House.

Representative Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, the chairman of the Democratic conference, said Democrats could not be drawn into focusing solely on Iraq. "We have to do Iraq and change the priorities of Washington," he said. "You can't become a one-trick pony."

The war has been the underlying theme of the new Democratic Congress, with barely a week going by without legislators embroiling themselves in committee hearings, a floor debate or symbolic resolutions for and against the war. Democrats have walked a careful line, trying to keep their criticism alive, but lowering expectations that they alone can influence war policy.

The month of June, though, has so far unfolded with barely a word being uttered about Iraq. And lawmakers said they were hearing about it.

Senator Amy Klobuchar, a Minnesota Democrat who was elected last fall, said constituents were seeking reassurance that Democratic efforts to challenge the administration have not fallen off. She said voters had little interest in being schooled in the intricate rules of the Senate, where 60 votes are required for debate to proceed on legislation.

"I share their frustration, answering them with procedural answers, 'Well, we need 60 votes,' " she said. "People are dying over there, so that isn't always helpful."

While Congress must accomplish domestic priorities, she said, Iraq remains the chief issue for most voters. "I think that's one of the things we've struggled with, is finding that balance," she said, welcoming the news that the Senate intends to revive the debate before month's end. "It's very important to me. I don't want to go home until we do it."