News Analysis: Democratic leadership’s hard work bears fruit on Iraq vote

After suffering countless defeats on the House floor over the last 12 years, Democrats scored a major victory by passing their controversial war-funding bill on Friday.

The 218-212 triumph was the first tight, high-profile vote House Democratic leaders faced since assuming the majority in January. The triumph, however, did not come easily, as Democratic leaders had to balance the views of liberals and conservatives in their caucus.

Earlier this week, Democratic leaders appeared to be dozens of votes down as they pleaded with their caucus to support a spending bill that they billed as the first step toward ending the Iraq war.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) leaned heavily on her colleagues to back the bill. Congressional aides said that a defeat of the measure would have been a devastating blow to her leadership authority and would have likely hampered her reign throughout the 110th Congress.

The victory shows that Pelosi has control of her caucus, despite several procedural defeats on other bills this year, including one that derailed the D.C. voting measure on Thursday.

Part of the problem confronting Democrats was that they knew that they could not rely on much Republican support.

Even though 17 Republicans had voted to disapprove of President Bush’s troop surge last month, Democratic leaders had anticipated that number being higher. And over the last couple of weeks, most of the 17 legislators had publicly denounced the Democratic spending bill.

Reps. Wayne Gilchrest (Md.) and Walter Jones (N.C.) were the only Republicans to vote for the supplemental appropriations bill on Friday.

Pelosi, along with Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) and other leaders worked on Democrats throughout the week.

Reps. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) and Danny Davis (D-Ill.) both were leaning “no” on Monday, but voted yes.

Similarly, Reps. Sheila Jackson Lee (D-Texas) and Edolphus Towns (D-N.Y.) appeared to be certain “no” votes earlier this week. Yet, they backed their leaders when the roll call begun.

When things were grim for Democrats earlier this week, there were whispers about Clyburn’s ability to persuade members to vote “yes.” When Clyburn’s friend and deputy whip, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), indicated he would reject the funding bill, those whispers grew louder. Some privately wondered whether Clyburn could play the bad cop.

“I might be too nice for the job, but I got Rahm,” Clyburn jokingly said, referring to the confrontational Emanuel.

But Clyburn played a key role in securing an agreement with the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) on the eve of the vote. That agreement did not lock up all members of the CBC, but it did sway some.

CBC Chair Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.) voted for the measure. Rep. Mel Watt (D-N.C.), who chaired CBC during the last Congress, missed the vote, but said on the floor he had been unavoidably detained and would have backed the bill.

One of the keys to their victory Friday was that Democratic leaders were able to split the Out of Iraq Caucus. Of the eight founders of the group, five backed the bill.

The 14 Democratic defectors included conservatives and liberals alike, ranging from Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah) to Maxine Waters (Calif.).

 

Rep. Pete Stark (D-Calif.) was opposed to the supplemental bill, but opted to vote “present” instead of no.

Congressional sources said that some liberal lawmakers needed to be reassured about the withdrawal date and that anything earlier than September 2008 was not feasible or safe for the troops. House leaders tapped freshmen with military experience, such as Reps. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.) and Tim Walz (D-Minn.) to make that argument.

Still, come committee chairmen, including Reps. Jim Oberstar (D-Minn.), John Conyers Jr. (D-Mich.) and Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) were publicly noncommittal days before the legislation hit the floor. They all voted “yes.”

Like the GOP majority before them, Democrats added some sweeteners to the hard-to-pass bill in order to turn undecided members into yeses. These provisions included funds for agriculture, Hurricane Katrina relief and a range of other issues that Republicans noted had nothing to do with the war.

Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, predicted that some Democrats will pay for their “yes” votes come November 2008.

Democrats from conservative-leaning districts who voted “yes” included Reps. Nancy Boyda (Kan.), Nick Lampson (Texas), Tim Mahoney (Fla.) and Zack Space (Ohio).

Reps. John Barrow (D-Ga.) and Jim Marshall (D-Ga.), who are GOP targets next year, voted against the bill.

President Bush attacked the bill soon after it passed, characterizing it as “an act of political theater.” He added the bill “has no chance of becoming law.”

During an interview on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” program, Clyburn shrugged off the veto threat: “The veto threats are just that, just threats. He doesn’t know what will come out of the deliberations that will take place between the House and Senate.”

Yet, most believe the Senate funding bill will hit numerous procedural obstacles and lacks the votes to clear the upper chamber.

After the vote was gaveled at 12:43 p.m., many House Democrats stayed on the floor, reveling in their victory. House Appropriations Committee Chairman Dave Obey (D-Wis.) and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) hugged each other while a smiling Hoyer shook every hand he could find.

A relieved Clyburn joked with members as Pelosi kissed and hugged her colleagues — even a few who voted no.

And as she moved to leave the chamber, Pelosi saw Hoyer and they immediately grasped each other’s hands and clenched tight. Then they embraced.

There undoubtedly has been tension between the two leaders over the years, but none was evident on Friday, a jubilant day for a caucus that passed its first real test in the majority.