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Anti-war House members press for a withdrawal plan
San Francisco Chronicle
Lawmakers, forced to meet in tiny room, complain of being stifled in committees
- Edward Epstein, Chronicle Washington Bureau
Friday, September 16, 2005
Washington -- Saying they're trying to climb out of the "political basement'' to which they feel consigned by Congress' Republican leaders, a few dozen House members opposed to the war in Iraq gathered Thursday to urge President Bush to plan an exit from the 31-month-old war.
The members, all Democrats except for Republican Rep. Walter Jones of North Carolina, say the political wind is at their backs. Polls show a majority of Americans favor withdrawal of at least some troops from Iraq, and Bush's overall approval ratings and the public's confidence in his handling of the war are at record lows.
At an ad hoc hearing in a tiny, crowded room in a House office building, the members said Thursday that they are being denied a proper forum to air and debate their views. "This hearing is long overdue,'' said Rep. Sam Farr, D-Carmel. "It's too bad that this very popular issue with the American people has to be run in basement politics in the Capitol.''
The activities of Cindy Sheehan of Vacaville, who has camped out at the president's Texas ranch, and the efforts of other anti-war campaigners have intensified the political pressure on the president at the same time Hurricane Katrina has focused attention on unmet domestic needs. The war critics hope nervous Republicans, eyeing the 2006 congressional elections, can help force Bush to start substantially cutting the size of the 140,000-person U.S. force in Iraq. Almost 1,900 soldiers have been killed and more than 14,000 wounded in the fighting.
That pressure against the war could increase over the next week. Sheehan, the mother of Casey Sheehan, an Army soldier killed in action, is due to arrive in Washington on Wednesday after a nationwide trip to stir support for an anti-war rally planned for Sept. 24 in the capital. Organizers expect tens of thousands of marchers at the rally.
The House members opposed to the war say they have been stifled in the International Relations and Armed Services Committees and from offering legislation for a debate on the House floor.
"The nearest thing we have to a hearing is a pep rally for the administration's policies, so we are forced into a forum like this,'' said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, as he sat at a jammed L-shaped table where some members sat behind hand-lettered name plates and were forced to climb over one another to get into and out of the room.
"It was virtually impossible to get a room for this subject,'' said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Petaluma, who chaired the ad hoc hearing, which featured testimony from a panel that included former Sen. Max Cleland, D-Ga., who is a decorated war veteran, and retired Marine Gen. Joseph Hoar.
"We want to fill the policy vacuum and break the silence on Capitol Hill,'' Woolsey said.
The hearing's star was Jones, the North Carolina conservative lawmaker who made headlines in June when he turned against the war he had initially supported and backed a resolution calling on Bush to devise a withdrawal plan.
"I came by to listen and to continue to push in a bipartisan way for a resolution,'' said Jones, who attended only briefly.
"As a conservative Republican, I've taken some criticism for doing what I think is right. ... But if you don't do what you think is right, you're cheating the American people,'' he added.
Other legislative efforts remain bottled up in the House, where the rules for debate are much more restrictive than in the Senate. On Wednesday, the International Relations Committee defeated a resolution calling for an investigation into the so-called Downing Street memos, leaked British government documents that indicated the Bush administration may have manipulated intelligence information about Iraq to justify a pre-emptive war.
The resolution sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland -- on which extensive debate was permitted in committee -- was defeated 22-21, almost entirely along party lines.
Lee used the parliamentary tactic of offering a resolution of inquiry to force the debate. If her resolution had been denied a vote in the committee, she could have gone to the House floor. It's a tactic more administration critics may use as their attacks on the war increase.
In June, the House blocked a resolution from House Minority Leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, that would have directed Bush to lay out a plan that could lead to troop withdrawals.
The testimony before the ad hoc hearing, the second the war critics have held, focused on how the United States could gradually withdraw from Iraq without leaving chaos behind.
"An abrupt end to the U.S. military presence would probably lead to an upsurge of violence among Iraqis and offer new opportunities for terrorists, but this does not excuse the absence of a new strategy for orderly disengagement,'' said David Mack, a former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates and now a vice president at the Middle East Institute.
He and other witnesses suggested getting a high-ranking, non-American mediator involved in Iraq to work with the various ethnic and religious factions on a new constitutional settlement that could lessen insurgent attacks and bring Iraq back from the brink of civil war.
"I believe the United States must begin to withdraw from any interference with the political process it has generated. Despite our most fervent wishes, we cannot assure that a democracy will develop in Iraq by virtue of the processes we have set in motion,'' said Antonia Chayes, professor of international politics at Tufts University's Fletcher School of Law.
Hoar, the former commander of U.S. Central Command, predicted American politics will be the driving force behind changing Bush's policy in Iraq.
"What will change the calculus is next year's election. There are people in the House who see the wind has changed,'' he said.
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., sponsor of legislation to reinstate the military draft, said he knows of a sure-fire way to instantly bring the troops home from Iraq.
"We could end this war overnight if we had a draft where everyone had to serve,'' he said.
E-mail Edward Epstein at email@example.com.
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