Anxious Dems eye power of the purse on Iraq

Rep. Charles Rangel (D-N.Y.) will chair the powerful Ways and Means Committee if Democrats win control of the House next year, but his main goal in 2007 does not fall within his panel’s jurisdiction.

“I can’t stop this war,” a frustrated Rangel said in a recent interview, reiterating his vow to retire from Congress if Democrats fall short of a majority in the House.

But when pressed on how he could stop the war even if Democrats control the House during the last years of President Bush’s second term, Rangel paused before saying, “You’ve got to be able to pay for the war, don’t you?”

Rangel’s views on funding the war are shared by many of his colleagues – especially within the 73-member Out of Iraq Caucus.

Some Democratic legislators want to halt funding for the war immediately, while others say they would allocate money for activities such as reconstruction, setting up international security forces, and the ultimate withdrawal of U.S. troops.

“Personally, I wouldn’t spend another dime [on the war,]” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.).

Woolsey is among the Democrats in Congress who are hoping to control the power of the purse in 2007 to force an end to the war. Woolsey and some of her colleagues note that Congress helped force the end of Vietnam War by refusing to pay for it.

Democrats in the House and Senate are united in their effort to conduct more oversight of the Bush administration’s management of the Iraq war, but are not on the same page on how to fund it.

While the Senate could switch hands, political analysts say the House is more likely to flip.

Having lost the last two elections in part because of national security issues, Democratic leaders have been reluctant to spell out their exact Iraq war funding strategy.

“I don’t think the Democratic leadership should put that out at the moment,” Woolsey said.

But Democratic leaders will be under tremendous pressure from campaign donors and activists to take bold steps on Iraq should they be setting the legislative agenda in the 110th Congress.

“If we have the majority, it’ll be because of Iraq,” said Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii).

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other Democrats have called for a reduction in troops to begin no later than the end of 2006, but as Speaker, she could have significant power over troop levels in 2007.

“[Pelosi] has consistently stated that Congress must ensure that our troops have the resources they need,” said Pelosi spokesman Drew Hamill.

Some Democratic congressional candidates have not embraced their leadership’s position of a troop withdrawal timetable in Iraq and conservative Democratic members in the House and Senate could also prove problematic in close budget and appropriations votes.

The Out of Iraq Caucus represents less than 40 percent of Democrats in the House. However, the group consists of many senior lawmakers, including a one Democratic leader, Rep. John Larson (D-Conn.), eight who are in line to chair panels, the next head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Carolyn Kilpatrick (D-Mich.), and eight appropriators.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), the ranking member of the Appropriations defense subcommittee and the most outspoken Democrat on withdrawing from Iraq, has said he will mount a bid for majority leader should Democrats win the House in November. His bill to redeploy forces from Iraq has 105 cosponsors.

Still, Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.), who has a bill seeking to prohibit funds to deploy armed forces to Iraq, says Democrats “have various positions on the war” and is skeptical that leadership will adopt an approach similar to his legislation.

He noted that his bill does not have many cosponsors (it has 18), and said despite the influential members of the Out of Iraq Caucus, “we all have one vote.”

Republicans are quick to portray talk of withdrawal as a “cut-and-run” strategy as they seek to mock Democrats on homeland security weeks before Nov. 7.

The Bush administration has previously indicated that it presumes that Democrats may attempt to cut off funding for the war if they win control of Congress next year. But the political battle over the war may be fiercer than some White House officials anticipate.

According to a report in The Washington Post last month, White House spokeswoman Dana Perino asked, “How would they force the president to withdraw troops? Yell?”

Battling the White House on the war would be challenging, Democrats say, but they would be emboldened by the election results and Bush’s standing as a lame-duck president with low approval ratings.

Abercrombie stressed that Democrats are not going to sever funding for the troops. Cutting off funding is “easy to say and another thing to do,” according to Abercrombie.

What’s more like likely, he said, is to fund the conflict in a way that will end the war by reallocating money to new initiatives.

“We’re going to continue to give the troops everything they need,” said Jim Manley, spokesman for Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.).

A House Democratic leadership aide said, “The bottom line is that should Democrats regain the House, Democrats will leave no soldier left behind in Iraq. As long as there’s soldiers in the battlefield, funding will continue.”

If Democrats control Congress, that funding likely would have strings attached. Most Senate Democrats backed a nonbinding measure earlier this year crafted by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) that called for troops to begin to withdraw from Iraq, but the amendment did not set a withdrawal deadline. Another amendment offered by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) set a redeployment of troops to be substantially completed by July 1, 2007 was soundly defeated, attracting only 13 votes. The Levin amendment fell short as well, garnering 39 votes.

Rep. John Spratt (D-S.C.), a Democratic leader in line to become the House Budget Committee chairman if Democrats win control of the House, said last month that he does not favor an immediate withdrawal: “I think we should tell the Iraqis that we’re not going to pull out immediately. We’re seeking still some positive outcome. We won’t leave them in a lurch, but at the same time, we’re not going to be there indefinitely or forever…” Spratt is in a challenging race to keep his seat this fall.

Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), chair of the Out of Iraq Caucus, declined to comment for this article.