San Francisco Chronicle: Pelosi's Gambit Succeeds; House Rebukes Bush on Iraq

February 17, 2007
By Mark Sandalow

Behind House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's decision to push a simple, nonbinding Iraq resolution is the calculation that a broad showing of anti-war sentiment is needed to more forcefully confront President Bush in the months ahead.

Pelosi fended off criticism from war critics that the resolution was too weak, and from conservatives that she was undermining the troops, as the House passed the measure Friday with 63 votes to spare.

By doing so, the new speaker accomplished what her Senate Democratic counterparts were unable to do last week, sending Bush the sternest rebuke of a wartime president since the Vietnam War and laying the groundwork for more consequential legislation.

'This resolution today sets the stage for that new direction,' Pelosi crowed minutes after the vote.

If there was any point of agreement during the 44 hours and 55 minutes of debate, it was that passage of the 97-word resolution was only a first step. Republicans warned that it was the start of a process that would signal surrender, while Democrats insisted it was the beginning of the end of Bush's Iraq campaign.

For Pelosi, starting small was part of a deliberate strategy designed to keep her party united and draw enough Republican votes to isolate Bush and demonstrate that a broad base of lawmakers was willing to challenge the president.

The number of House Republicans who voted for the resolution -- 17 -- was smaller than some had predicted. Nonetheless, it was Congress' first condemnation of Bush since the war began and another triumph for Pelosi in her second month as speaker after the swift passage of the Democrats '100-hour' domestic agenda in January.

The test of the strategy's effectiveness will come in the next few months as the White House responds to -- or ignores -- congressional pressure and the House considers taking a further step by placing conditions on the Pentagon's spending bill to limit the president's freedom to escalate the war.

The near unanimity of Democrats -- just two of 233 voted against the resolution -- and the willingness of 17 Republicans to vote for the resolution encouraged many war critics that changes in Bush's war policy are inevitable.

The strategy that led to the rebuke of Bush's Iraq policy took shape in the speaker's office during the first week of February as the Senate's efforts to pass its own resolution sputtered.

Originally the strategy had been to allow the Senate to build a broad bipartisan consensus for a resolution opposing the president's decision to send more U.S. troops to Iraq and let the momentum sweep through the House for a large bipartisan victory. But Senate Republicans used procedural measures to prevent the resolution from coming to a vote. Ironically, Senate Democrats now will try to ride the momentum of the House victory to push a vote through their chamber today, a prospect that appears unlikely to succeed.

As the Senate debate stalled, Pelosi met with top Democrats in the House and decided to proceed. They rejected the language of the Senate resolution, a nuanced 1,700-word measure written by Republican Sen. John Warner of Virginia, which contained phrases that bothered some war critics. They instructed House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Lantos of San Mateo and Armed Services Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri to come up with a simpler resolution to put every member plainly on record supporting or opposing Bush's troop increase.

There was immediately pressure from members of the Progressive Caucus to include language urging withdrawal. There was pressure from members of the conservative Blue Dog Coalition to demand financial accountability.

The decision was made to keep the language short and simple, focused on only two points upon which a large majority could agree: support for the troops and opposition to Bush's plans to send more.

'We had just come off the '100 hours' triumphal parade. We wanted to keep it as another unifying force for House Democrats,' Lantos said.

Indeed, Democratic Rep. Mike Ross, a Blue Dog from Arkansas told the Democratic caucus last week he originally wanted to include language on accountability, but backed off as soon as he saw the simplicity of the 97-word resolution, according to participants in the closed-door meeting. The same meeting included speeches from Rep. Jane Harman, D-Venice (Los AngelesCounty), initially a strong supporter of the war, and Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, a vigorous opponent, strongly in support of the resolution.

Unlike their Senate counterparts, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders decided not to allow the Republicans any opportunity to present an alternative measure that might confuse the message or to hold hearings on the resolution that would slow its process.

House rules provide the majority party the ability to impose its decisions, and Democrats did so despite objections from Republicans. The 246 lawmakers who supported the resolution Friday represent 56 percent of the House. That number would translate into 56 votes in the Senate, which is roughly the number of senators who would be expected to support a resolution were it able to clear procedural hurdles.

Pelosi, who was among the earliest critics of the war, used her credentials in the progressive community to persuade adamant anti-war critics to support a resolution weaker than one they would have wanted.

'She kept the flank together,'' said Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, a coalition of anti-war groups. 'We told them we'd prefer to go farther, faster. But the first principle in this business is you have to know how to count votes.

'More than most leaders, progressives are going to give Speaker Pelosi the benefit of the doubt,' Andrews said.

Pelosi, who has pulled few punches in confronting Bush over Iraq, set the tone of the House debate Tuesday. Her sober address that refrained from spirited attacks on the administration and focused on sending a message of support for the troops and opposition to the Bush's plan. She spoke again Friday near the end of the debate, summoning her colleagues to the House floor, offering an alternative plan for Iraq and asking for a moment of silence to honor the troops' sacrifice.

'Pelosi was pitch-perfect,'' said Brad Woodhouse, a spokesman for Americans against Escalation in Iraq, another anti-war umbrella group that met with the speaker last week and echoed her pragmatism.

'You can only pass what you have votes for. Right now -- today -- you could not get through the Congress a bill to cut off funding,' Woodhouse said. 'We have achieved our first goal of isolating the president.'

Lantos marveled at Pelosi's ability to take the long legislative view.

'The legislative process is not a kayak that you can turn around in two seconds,' Lantos said. 'It is a battleship that does not turn on a dime.

'Nancy insisted that if we kept it simple, it would not only keep (Democrats) united, but would make it bipartisan. And if we have an overwhelming vote ... the administration will not be able to ignore it.'