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House Opens Debate Over War Funding, Troop Withdrawal

March 22, 2007 at 6:10 PM EDT
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KWAME HOLMAN: On the eve of the highest-profile vote of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s three-month tenure, it was still unclear whether she would secure passage of a $124 billion spending bill that ties funding for the Iraq war to the withdrawal of troops.

REP. DENNIS KUCINICH (D-OH), Presidential Candidate: It is time to end the war.

KWAME HOLMAN: Some of the most staunchly anti-war members among the Democrats have said they will vote against anything that continues military operations in Iraq.

Party leaders hoped the bill’s language requiring all combat troops be withdrawn by September 2008 at the latest would sway the dissenters.

But it hasn’t swayed Georgia Democrat John Lewis, himself one of the leadership’s vote-counters.

REP. JOHN LEWIS (D), Georgia: I am not prepared to vote for another dollar, another dime to support this war. It is time to bring our young men and our young women home.

KWAME HOLMAN But Democratic leaders point out that their bill would bring home troops even sooner, if the Iraqi government fails to meet certain political and security benchmarks outlined by President Bush in January.

REP. STENY HOYER (D-MD), Majority Leader: And, if there are no consequences for them not meeting them, the probability of them being accomplished are very small.

KWAME HOLMAN: But deadlines that could lead to troop withdrawal have prompted some moderate and conservative Democrats to oppose the bill, fearing they could compromise the military’s ability to make decisions.

That’s a viewpoint shared by almost all 201 Republicans, who appear united against the bill.

REP. MIKE PENCE (R), Indiana: Congress may declare war. Congress may choose to fund or choose not to fund war. But Congress may not conduct war.

KWAME HOLMAN: Faced with such a potentially tight vote and only a 32-seat majority, Democratic leaders added to the bill $24 billion in additional spending, including nearly $4 billion worth of agriculture relief, much of it directed at farm state Democrats.

Illinois Republican Mark Kirk accused Democrats of trying to buy votes with fiscally irresponsible pork-barrel projects.

REP. MARK KIRK (R), Illinois: It would provide $25 million in a bailout for spinach farmers, another $74 million in taxpayer dollars for peanut storage, and $283 million for milk producers. All of this spending is designated under the bill as emergency wartime supplemental appropriations.

KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats, however, focused on their claim that the time had come to put restrictions on President Bush’s Iraq policy.

REP. PETER DEFAZIO (D), Oregon: This is the first enforceable challenge to the president’s plan to escalate and continue a stay-the-course, open-ended commitment to a war, a war that was launched with massive deception, an unnecessary war.

KWAME HOLMAN: With 218 votes needed for passage, Democrats can only afford to lose only 15 of their own members. Leaders are leaning on their freshmen, such as Georgia’s Hank Johnson, who, this afternoon, remained publicly undecided. He said his constituents want to bring the troops home, but that that’s not so easy to do.

REP. HANK JOHNSON (D), Georgia: Well, I think the people of the 4th District, by and large, are ready for this war to come to end; and they want to see a cessation of deaths of United States soldiers in combat on the streets of the Iraq. And they want to see that happen now.

And, politically, the reality is that you just can’t yank the troops off the streets. You just can’t leave them without the funding that they need in order to wind this process down.

KWAME HOLMAN: If the bill does pass the House, and next week the Senate, it still faces the threat of a presidential veto, even though the Pentagon reportedly is desperately in need of the troop funding.

A 'difficult vote'

Rep. John Tanner
D-Tenn.
The benchmarks in this bill are the ones the president proposed in the State of the Union. Funding for the troops, in support of the troops, is never withheld under any circumstances in the bill.

MARGARET WARNER: For a closer look at the debate in the House, we're joined by two members who are deeply involved in rounding up votes for opposing sides on this bill, John Tanner of Tennessee, a chief deputy whip for the Democrats. He's also a leader of the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of moderate House Democrats. And Eric Cantor of Virginia, he's the chief deputy whip for the Republicans.

Welcome to you both.

Congressman Tanner, beginning with you, why is this vote such a dilemma for the Democrats?

REP. JOHN TANNER (D), Tennessee: Well, I think any vote on war and the related consequences of war is a difficult vote for anybody who holds public office, Democrat or Republican, because you're dealing with the most serious aspects of our job, and that is sending young Americans possibly to their death.

And, so, I don't look at this, maybe as some do, as a partisan issue. And I said as much the other day in "The Washington Post."

MARGARET WARNER: And do you think you have -- you're one of the vote-counters -- the 218 votes you need?

REP. JOHN TANNER: I don't know.

I guess my title would be that. But I think, on matters of war, that members have to exercise their own judgment and their own conscience, and be mindful of the people they represent. I think this vote has been mischaracterized to some degree, because I feel like this is a message that is being sent to the Iraqis, not to our troops. We don't have to send a message to our own people.

But we do need to send a message to the Iraqis. Look, this has been four-plus years now, four years and three days. We have lost over 3,000 people. We have lost over 25,000 wounded. The Iraqis have had Saddam Hussein taken out. They have had two elections. They have had a government now for over a year. And we see no progress on them.

The benchmarks in this bill are the ones the president proposed in the State of the Union. Funding for the troops, in support of the troops, is never withheld under any circumstances in the bill. And I have come to the conclusion -- I served four years on active duty during Vietnam days and then 26 years in the Army National Guard.

I have come to the conclusion that it's time for them to step up. I am past the point of asking young military families in this country to continue to die and the American taxpayers to spend $2.5 billion a week in Iraq to help people who are seemingly unwilling or unable to get along. And, while they're shooting at each other, both sides are shooting at us.

I don't -- I think it's time for us not to be the policemen on the beat in the city of Baghdad. We're not talking about leaving the area. We're not going to leave the area. But I think that a timeline and a message to the Iraqis: Look, it's time for you people to get along. We're not going to stay here open-endedly, shedding our blood and our taxpayer money forever.

Republican stance on the bill

Rep. Eric Cantor
R-Va.
The fact of the matter is, we are in a long-term war against terrorist organizations that have state sponsors that, frankly, have no room in their vision of the world for free nations, such as America or our allies.

MARGARET WARNER: So, Congressman Cantor, what are the Republicans saying, that it is an open-ended commitment?

REP. ERIC CANTOR (R), Virginia: Well, first of all, I agree with John that this is a question of moral conscience. I mean, this is one of the most serious votes that one takes as a member of Congress, without a doubt.

But, somehow, that characterization has not penetrated. But I think the reason why it hasn't penetrated is what you see going on, on the other side of the aisle. When you look at a bill like this -- and it is porked up with $24 billion of spending -- and you just ran some of the clips -- of -- for spinach farmers, for -- for peanut farmers, for disaster relief, things that really aren't related to a wartime emergency.

And that's the -- those are the things that some on the other side have insisted upon, in order to be able to then vote, I guess, against their conscience and vote for the bill. And I think that's really where we stand right now. Our side is committed to making sure that we do not tie the hands of the commanders on the ground, that we give our troops everything they need.

And, at the end of the day, we don't want to send a message to our enemies that '08 comes, and that's it, with no plan after that. And that's where I would take a little bit of difference with John, that, you know, the -- the message here is, to the enemies: We're going to cut off all taxpayer funding in '08, so all you have to do is sort of wait around until then, and rearm, and strategize about what to do.

The fact of the matter is, we are in a long-term war against terrorist organizations that have state sponsors that, frankly, have no room in their vision of the world for free nations, such as America or our allies.

MARGARET WARNER: And let me just ask you a follow-up. How many of -- how united is the Republican caucus here? You did have, for instance, 17 defections last month, 17 Republicans who voted to disapprove of the president's troop surge. Can you hold most of them on this vote?

REP. ERIC CANTOR: Absolutely, Margaret.

I think the difference here is, our troops are on the ground now. We do not want to put them in any type of situation where they don't have what they need, where they don't understand that their Congress and the American people are behind them.

Our conference is united. And I think that also explains sort of some of the difficulty in why this bill hasn't come to the floor yet.

A 'first step' towards a solution

Rep. John Tanner
D-Tenn.
I'm not willing to keep on asking our taxpayers, and particularly these young military families, to do this forever.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman Tanner, you -- as a Blue Dog Democrat, you only declared your support for this bill yesterday. Now, you described some of the reasons why you support it. But was that a difficult choice for you to come to, and do you think it is shared by some of your fellow Blue Dog Democrats?

REP. JOHN TANNER: Well, I have been traditionally been opposed to a timeline. But let me tell you why I didn't: because it wasn't written. And I didn't know what was it was.

And I would love to see it before I decide whether or not I'm going to be for it. It's finally been put together. And, as I said, I came to the conclusion that the alternative -- and we must pass a supplemental of some kind. The Army says that. From my military experience, I know that we have to pass a supplemental of some sort.

And, so, I wouldn't have written the bill exactly like it's been written. But I'm sure Eric, as when they were in the majority, voted for some bills that had some stuff in it that he may not have agreed with line by line. We all have to do that from time to time.

But I think the alternative is -- is what I said, an open-ended commitment of our blood and treasure, and with no pressure on the Iraqi government to make the necessary changes, like sending their troops into Baghdad that are trained, supposedly, unless we do this.

And, so, Tom Friedman, as you may recall, said that this timeline would be the best instrument that General Petraeus could have to make the Iraqis step up to the plate now, after four years. I mean, you can only put a square peg in a round hole -- or try to -- for so long.

And I think that this is a first step. And, of course, nothing's forever. If things go better, and the benchmarks are met, who knows what we can come back and visit. But, until the Iraqis understand that, every time something goes wrong, the Americans are going to be there to fight, die, and -- and, as I said, we're spending $200,000 a minute in Iraq.

I'm not willing to keep on asking our taxpayers, and particularly these young military families, to do this forever.

Petraeus' security plan

Rep. Eric Cantor
R-Va.
I think the reports are out now that there are 20 Democrats who right now refuse to support their speaker's bill. So, obviously, that's -- they need some of our votes to pass it. And they do not have the votes from our side to pass it.

MARGARET WARNER: Yes.

So, Congressman Cantor, let me ask you about the situation on the ground and the security plan that General Petraeus is now trying to implement. The president said this week there were some hopeful signs after a month. One, do you agree with that? And, two, how is that -- how is that situation affecting the debate unfolding in the House now?

REP. ERIC CANTOR: Well, I do think that the reports, early reports, out of the Petraeus plan have been positive.

I think everyone is reticent to go and predict success across the board. It is a very tough situation there, as John has described. You know, war is never easy. And it's not pleasant for Americans to see young -- our young men and women dying on the battlefield.

But I think the way that that impacts this debate is that we want to give it our all and to give our troops everything they need, and to really not try and micromanage this war. The president has put forward the Petraeus plan for victory. And we want to give that an opportunity to work. And we want to send a message to our troops that we stand behind them, and we don't want to tie their hands or their commanders' hands in executing their mission.

MARGARET WARNER: So, let me ask your Democratic counterpart.

Are -- are you all saying -- are the Democrats saying that you think the Petraeus -- the whole security plan, that's just hopeless?

REP. JOHN TANNER: No. I hope it works.

General Petraeus himself has said that there is no military solution. This timeline business that's caused us so much consternation around here is the one tool that will make the Iraqis step up to the plate. That's what we all want. And, so, when General Petraeus himself says it's time for a political and diplomatic solution, this, I think, is the right way to go.

I -- as my military background tells me -- and, by the way, I am on the NATO parliamentary delegation -- I chair it -- to NATO. We are in danger of losing the momentum in Afghanistan, I'm fearful, because of this situation in Iraq.

Look, these people, the Shiite and the Sunni, have really been in a hot-and-cold war off and on since 632 A.D., when Mohammed died. Now, if they can -- I hope they can come together. But they're going to have to do it. We have done -- the American people have spent 3,000 dead, 25,000 wounded, and almost $400 billion over the last four years. This war is going on almost as long as World War II, if not longer.

And, at some point, if the Iraqis are unwilling or unable to do something -- we're not talking about leaving. We're not talking about in any way impacting the commanders' options. In fact, this timeline is way beyond what the president himself said the surge would do, whether it would work or not.

MARGARET WARNER: Congressman...

REP. JOHN TANNER: So, I mean, this is not trying -- I wouldn't vote to tie the hands of our commanders in the field.

MARGARET WARNER: We're about to run out of time here, but let me just go back to Congressman Cantor.

So, I haven't heard from you what your prediction is of how this vote is going to go. Do you think you can peel off enough Democrats to forestall this?

REP. ERIC CANTOR: I think the reports are out now that there are 20 Democrats who right now refuse to support their speaker's bill. So, obviously, that's -- they need some of our votes to pass it. And they do not have the votes from our side to pass it.

So, we will have to see tomorrow what comes. Now, John will do his job. And I think we will continue to do our job, in listening to our members to understand where they are.

I do think, though, that the American people are firmly behind our troops, and that they do want to give our troops everything they need to fight, to win, and to come home as soon as possible.

MARGARET WARNER: All right, Congressman Cantor and Congressman Tanner, thank you both.

REP. JOHN TANNER: Thank you.

REP. ERIC CANTOR: Thank you.