Biden thanks Dems for 'difficult' war votes

CAMBRIDGE, Md. — Vice President Biden thanked House Democrats for their reluctant support of the administration’s policy in Iraq and Afghanistan as he acknowledged the “tough haul” that comes from fighting two wars has divided the party.

Appearing at the caucus’s retreat on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, the vice president gave an extended update of the situation in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan in a sobering, off-the-cuff talk that lasted nearly an hour.

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Biden insisted the U.S. would start withdrawing troops from Afghanistan in 2011 as planned. “The United States will be drawing down its forces,” he said. “Just as we kept our commitment in Iraq, we will keep the commitment of this administration as it relates to Afghanistan.”

The vice president was speaking to a caucus that includes dozens of Democrats who opposed the administration’s troop surge in Afghanistan and pushed for a faster withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.

“Many of you cast extremely, extremely difficult votes,” Biden said in wrapping up his remarks. “Thank you all for your courage.”

On Iraq, he acknowledged many in the room “understandably had your doubts” about the administration’s policy.

“To state the obvious, it’s not been easy. It’s not gone perfectly,” Biden said.

He trumpeted the withdrawal of more than 100,000 U.S. troops from Iraq during Obama’s first two years, saying the government was well on its way to fulfilling Obama’s pledge for a responsible exit from the country. Biden also said it was “not surprising” that Iraqis took several months to form a coalition government after last year's elections.

“Politics has broken out,” Biden said. “Politics has largely replaced violence as the dominant way of settling disputes and advancing interests.”

The vice president joked about the caucus’s decision to invite him back after his last appearance before House Democrats in December led to an extraordinary denunciation of the administration’s tax deal with Republicans. “I enjoyed standing there,” he said, referring to the criticism he heard from several Democrats during the earlier session. “When I walked in, they gave me a standing ovation. When I left, most gave me a standing ovation.”

Biden opened his appearance by paying tribute to Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-Ariz.), who is recovering from brain surgery after being shot in Tucson, Ariz., earlier this month. Recalling the surgery that followed two separate aneurysms he suffered, Biden said he talked with his neurosurgeons and was hopeful for Giffords’s full recovery, though he acknowledged he had no data that supported his optimism.

“I just looked at how quickly she’s moved, and I’m hopeful. I’m hopeful,” Biden said.

He also offered his own call for civility in the political discourse and praised Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) for backing an effort to have bipartisan seating at the State of the Union address.

“I think there is, not about assigning blame, but sort of a generic recognition that we’ve got to change the way we talk to one another,” Biden said. “We’ve got to change the way we talk to one another. Tone matters. Words matter.”

While there were teleprompters set up for Biden’s speech, he did not use them, and toward the end of a meandering, 54-minute talk, he acknowledged, “This may be boring you all.” Lawmakers were spotted frequently checking their BlackBerrys during the speech, and at one point, Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.), who had introduced Biden, got up to stretch his legs.

Reporters were quickly ushered out of the ballroom after his talk so lawmakers could have a private question-and-answer session with the vice president.