KWAME HOLMAN: It’s become routine in committee rooms and on the streets around the Capitol, demonstrators railing against the Iraq war, targeting Republicans, but also the Democrats who promised to end it.
PROTESTER: This is a group of Republicans and a group of Democrats who can’t figure out how to get us out.
KWAME HOLMAN: Within earshot of this recent demonstration, a group of House Democrats was sympathetic, but almost resigned to the reality their latest legislative attempt, like all the ones before, would not bring the troops home.
California’s Barbara Lee has been a staunch opponent of the war from the start.
REP. BARBARA LEE (D), California: The American people put Democrats in the majority to end the occupation, not to extend the occupation.
KWAME HOLMAN: By the end of 2006, the U.S. military death toll in Iraq had reached 3,000. America’s patience with the war was thin, and many voters took out their frustrations on Republican candidates in November’s congressional elections.
Democrats captured narrow majorities in both the House and Senate and vowed to end the Iraq war.
REP. NANCY PELOSI (D-CA), Speaker of the House: The election of 2006 was a call to change, not merely to change the control of Congress, but for a new direction for our country. Nowhere were the American people more clear about the need for a new direction than in the war in Iraq.
KWAME HOLMAN: But in the 17 months since taking control of Congress, Democrats have been foiled in every attempt to withdraw troops, to give them extended downtime, prevented even from mandating benchmarks on the Iraqi government.
Rahm Emanuel is a member of the House Democratic leadership.
REP. RAHM EMANUEL (D), Illinois: And we’ve tried to force the president. He has the veto pen. We don’t have the votes to override. I’m not, you know, crying in my milk. We have brought to his desk conditions tied to money. He has vetoed it.
Democrats, GOP disagree on surge
KWAME HOLMAN: Meanwhile, the money to pay for the war continued to flow, an additional $315 billion just since the Democrats came to power.
LEE HAMILTON, Co-Chair, Iraq Study Group: On behalf of the Iraq Study Group...
KWAME HOLMAN: Early on, Democrats' hopes for changing Iraq policy were bolstered by the high-profile Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan panel of experienced Washington hands who declared the situation in Iraq "grave and deteriorating" and called for diplomatic over military action.
LEE HAMILTON: The current approach is not working.
SEN. JON KYL (R), Arizona: There was a lot of discussion about what the mandate of the election meant in terms of Iraq policy.
KWAME HOLMAN: The Senate's number-two Republican, Arizona's Jon Kyl, said his colleagues were nervous after the party's losses in the midterm elections. But he says the Iraq Study Group's report did little to move Republicans away from the president.
SEN. JON KYL: With all due respect, their recommendations were a bit diffuse. They were not clear, specific, precise. It enabled just about everybody to read into the situation what they wanted, and there was no real push that gained any momentum to do anything with them.
GEORGE W. BUSH, President of the United States: The new strategy I outline tonight will change America's course in Iraq.
KWAME HOLMAN: A month into the new Congress, President Bush responded with a plan for stepped-up military action, a so-called surge of troops to be led by General David Petraeus.
GEORGE W. BUSH: So I've committed more than 20,000 additional American troops to Iraq.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats were deeply skeptical about the surge, but without Republican votes there was nothing they could do to stop it. Democrats did attempt to pass a non-binding resolution expressing opposition to the troop increase.
REP. CHARLIE RANGEL (D), New York: You can't make a mistake in supporting this resolution. It's not going to hurt our beloved warriors. It's going to help our country. It's going to help them.
KWAME HOLMAN: But most congressional Republicans were willing to give the surge time.
REP. PHIL GINGREY (R), Georgia: I rise today in support of delivering a knockout punch in Iraq, stabilizing Baghdad, securing freedom for the Iraqi people, and dealing a blow for terrorism across the Middle East.
Veto ends Democrats' win
KWAME HOLMAN: The anti-surge resolution narrowly passed the House in February of 2007. But in the Senate, matters of any controversy routinely can require a 60-vote majority to succeed, meaning Democrats would need as many as 10 Republicans to join them.
SEN. JON KYL: We had many members go to Iraq, and everyone who did came back pretty much with the same message: This has real hope here, real chance of succeeding.
And as it played out, the concern for political repercussions faded significantly. And, really, all of the Republican members began to really believe that this could work.
KWAME HOLMAN: Democrats' attempts to sway Iraq policy once again were blocked.
SEN. CARL LEVIN (D), Michigan: The challenge before us is to get to the 60 votes.
KWAME HOLMAN: That frustration was echoed by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who spoke to Judy Woodruff last month.
REP. NANCY PELOSI: We have sent over to the Senate over, and over, and over again legislation calling for the redeployment of our troops out of Iraq. A bipartisan majority in the Senate supports that, but not 60 votes, and that has been the obstacle.
KWAME HOLMAN: That bipartisanship was allowed to succeed, however briefly, in March of 2007. Republican leaders dropped the 60-vote requirement, and a handful of moderate Republicans helped Senate Democrats pass a war spending bill that would have triggered troop withdrawals.
Nebraska's Chuck Hagel, a longtime critic of the president's conduct of the war, was among the Republican dissidents.
SEN. CHUCK HAGEL (R), Nebraska: I think it's wrong to escalate our military involvement in Iraq. The Congress now must play a role. The American people expect us to. Constitutionally, we have a responsibility to do that.
KWAME HOLMAN: However, the Democrats' rare victory was short-lived. Within days, President Bush vetoed the troop withdrawal timeline.
GEORGE W. BUSH: I've made it clear for weeks that if either the House or Senate version of this bill comes to my desk, I will veto it.
War funding approved
KWAME HOLMAN: Kyl argues Democrats might have had more success had they used better tactics.
SEN. JON KYL: They were pushed so hard by their left to try to achieve more than the traffic would bear, more than their comforts, and certainly more than the Congress, the Republicans, would support, much of it for pretty partisan reasons, politically partisan reasons.
But that made it much easier for Republicans to stay together and to, as a unit, oppose what the Democrats did.
KWAME HOLMAN: But another factor also was helping Republicans stay together as spring turned to summer last year. General Petraeus was scheduled to report to Congress on the surge in September, and many Republicans refused to consider major policy changes until they heard from the general.
Iowa's Chuck Grassley was among them.
SEN. CHARLES GRASSLEY (R), Iowa: We owe it to General Petraeus, since we voted 81-0 to send him over there to have some confidence in him. Will it work or not? We don't know. But we've got to wait for his report and then make a judgment at that time.
KWAME HOLMAN: When September came, the general's report that violence was down due to the surge undercut Democrats' hopes for ending the war.
GEN. DAVID PETRAEUS, Commander, U.S. Forces in Iraq: As a bottom line upfront, the military objectives of the surge are, in large measure, being met.
KWAME HOLMAN: After a year of frustration in 2007, Democratic leaders have all but accepted that they cannot change Iraq policy during this administration.
REP. RAHM EMANUEL: So the changes that we are putting, the conditions, the alterations in policy, really await the next president. We have a president that has determined to go down in a blaze of vetoes.
KWAME HOLMAN: In the meantime, the Senate last night gave final congressional approval of nearly $162 billion in emergency war spending. The money will fund military operations well into 2009, giving President Bush everything he has asked for to fight the Iraq war.