- The Washington Times - Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Presidential candidates from both parties addressed a firefighters union yesterday, with Democrats calling for an end to the Iraq war and Sen. Barack Obama saying that a U.S. troop withdrawal must come before any domestic agenda can progress.

Mr. Obama’s speech stressed the need for energy independence, universal health care and improved schools, but the Illinois Democrat cautioned the audience.

“None of this is going to happen until we do what everyone in this room knows that we must do, and that is bring this war in Iraq to a close,” he said, inspiring booming applause and reminding the firefighters he opposed the war from the beginning.

Most of the 11 politicians appealing to the 1,000 members of the International Association of Fire Fighters in the hope of getting the group’s endorsement talked about their support for collective bargaining and strengthening the middle class, but the Iraq war surfaced in each speech.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr., Delaware Democrat, said one thing stands in the way of restoring America’s place in the world and strengthening the middle class, calling the war the “single biggest issue because it affects everything else.”

“In order to for us get about the business of the nation, this war must end,” he said.

Mr. Biden was among the favorites of the crowd, even though he spoke last, drawing huge cheers by saying: “I don’t want to hear any more about ‘working men and women.’ I want people to use the word ‘union.’ ”

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat, said Congress should “end this escalation now,” adding that if President Bush does not withdraw the troops from Iraq by January 2009, “When I’m president, I will.”

She also criticized the president on labor issues, saying the “days of George Bush thinking the union bug is something he needs to squash are over.” Members applauded her calls for collective-bargaining rights, which most Democrats echoed yesterday.

“When you plunge head first into burning buildings for a living, you have more than earned the right to organize,” she said.

Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, who supports sending more troops to Iraq, said lawmakers must have the political courage to offer “constructive” plans and not resolutions that are merely “political theater” and “an opportunity for one party to score points against another.”

Former Sen. John Edwards, North Carolina Democrat, highlighted his record on labor issues and said other presidential candidates often merely talk the talk.

“As long as I am alive and breathing, I will walk picket lines with you, and I will help you organize, and I will stand with you because I believe in you,” he said.

IAFF officials said they will make a decision around Labor Day.

Though the September 11 terrorist attacks were often mentioned or alluded to, former New York Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani was one of the few major candidates absent.

IAFF General President Harold Schaitberger had some harsh words for the Republican who was nicknamed “America’s Mayor” after the terrorist attacks.

“I find it a little incredible that in some ways the foundation of his very candidacy is on the back of 9/11, and I view that as a pretty shaky foundation once some of the facts and the truth are out,” Mr. Schaitberger told reporters.

When he was mayor, Mr. Giuliani irked some firefighters by attempting to halt the recovery of human remains under the World Trade Center wreckage more than 50 days into the cleanup, citing safety concerns. Many called it a political calculation since firefighters had stood atop the rubble for weeks.

Mr. Giuliani’s campaign cited a scheduling conflict as the reason for not attending.

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