Vulnerable lawmakers are hesitant to send more troops to Afghanistan

Vulnerable Democrats who rode into Congress on the argument that Afghanistan is home to the real war on terror are now hesitant to support a call for more troops.

The White House and military leaders are in the course of determining how best to proceed in Afghanistan. Those deliberations include whether to send up to 40,000 more troops there.

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Now that lawmakers may have to vote on funding a potential troop increase, those Democratic members, many of whom are leading Republican targets in 2010, are starting to express uncertainty, especially since Republicans are seizing upon the politically perilous vote as a 2010 campaign issue.

While running for Congress in 2006, New Hampshire Democrat Carol Shea-Porter called the war in Iraq “a distraction” from the real terrorist threat in Afghanistan. In an election cycle full of Iraq war rhetoric, the meagerly funded political activist was a poster child for the success of the anti-Iraq war crowd.

And she was one of 47 freshman Democrats who signed a May 2008 letter to then-President George W. Bush that argued for a renewed focus in Afghanistan and that the war should be “fully funded.”

But now Shea-Porter is encouraging skepticism about the potential troop increase. She said a vote on it would be very difficult for members.

“Just a short while ago, we voted on the supplemental for Afghanistan, and it was fascinating because [almost] all the Republicans voted no and 32 Democrats voted no,” Shea-Porter said. “It’s reminiscent of other votes that we had for Iraq. I think members of Congress are going to be struggling mightily.”

And she’s not the only lawmaker keeping her options open.

“A lot of us are keeping our powder dry for the time being,” Rep. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), the president of the class of 2008, said of his fellow freshmen.

Rep. Ron Klein (D-Fla.), who spearheaded the May 2008 letter, agreed that such issues create trouble for members. He said he’s undecided on a troop increase.

“I think people in my district and across the country want to hear more,” he said. “They want to know we’re making well-reasoned decisions.”
Freshman Rep. Steve Driehaus (D-Ohio) acknowledged the difficulty in weighing a potentially unsustainable commitment of U.S. troops and resources against the desire to prevent a resurgence of al Qaeda in Afghanistan.

But he indicated that he’d need a lot of convincing before agreeing to tens of thousands more troops.

“I’m open to any argument that the administration is going to make, but it’s got to be a compelling argument,” said Driehaus, who faces a rematch with former Rep. Steve Chabot (R-Ohio).

Many of the Democrats who will face a tough vote already have opponents, and several of those opponents have already keyed on the dilemma in their campaigns.

The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) last week singled out Rep. Larry Kissell (D-N.C.), saying he faced a decision between supporting military generals and backing Vice President Joe Biden, who is raising money for him. That theme should be recycled in the coming weeks.

One of the new Democrats most likely to support the measure is freshman Rep. Walt Minnick (D-Idaho), who pointed out that he would have joined two lonely Democrats in voting for the surge in Iraq if he had been in Congress at the time.

He also said that, if President Barack Obama backs the Afghanistan troop increase, Democrats in Congress would likely support him en masse.

“If the president requests it, I’d be surprised if there was anything but overwhelming support,” Minnick said. “I don’t think anyone in Congress wants to cast a vote against the commander in chief on this.”

While most members are biding their time, a few have taken positions early on.

Five new members being targeted by Republicans — Reps. Bruce Braley (Iowa), Alan Grayson (Fla.), Kurt Schrader (Ore.), Dan Maffei (N.Y.) and Steve Kagen (Wis.) — signed off on a letter two weeks ago urging Obama not to send more troops to Afghanistan, “particularly in the absence of a well-defined military exit strategy.”

The letter stated that the group of nearly 60 members — mostly from the left wing of the Democratic Party — questioned the additional commitment to a war “that could last 10 years or more” and carry great costs.

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“The more we learn about the situation, the less convinced I am that increasing troop levels will result in success,” Maffei, a freshman lawmaker, said.

Braley, who signed on to the May 2008 letter as well, said the change in the party of the president doesn’t change his outlook on the future of the war, and that many new members are with him.

“Many in my class ran on a strong platform of opposing [Bush’s] policies in Iraq,” Braley said. “Many of us still have strong reservations about getting into a similar situation in Afghanistan.”