Sunday, November 20, 2005

The Democrats’ escalating attacks on the war in Iraq have divided party leaders over the issue of withdrawing U.S. troops, even as the strategy energizes the party base in preparation for next year’s elections.

Encouraged by growing public disapproval of President Bush’s conduct of the war, Democratic leaders mounted an aggressive assault in Congress over the past two weeks.

Their hope is that doubts about the progress of the mission in Iraq will become the driving force to put Democrats back in the majority in the 2006 elections.

“The public has been expressing a lot of concern over the way the war is going,” said Phil Singer, chief spokesman for the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. “It’s very clear so far in the polls that they want Congress to hold the Bush administration accountable. Iraq is a major issue.”

But Republicans aggressively counterattacked last week, charging that the Democrats are playing politics with an issue that risks the lives of U.S. troops.

“Are the Democrat attacks designed to help us win the war on terror or help them win the next election?” asked Ken Mehlman, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

On Thursday, Rep. John P. Murtha of Pennsylvania, ranking Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, presented colleagues with a resolution calling for a staged withdrawal of troops from Iraq. The next day, House Republican leaders decided to call the Democrats’ bluff by scheduling a surprise vote on their own resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of troops.

The House rejected the measure late Friday night, 403 to 3, after an unusually contentious floor debate.

Rep. Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, had suggested last week that “at the right time, we will have a position” on Iraq. Rep. Thomas M. Reynolds, chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee, retorted that he smelled political gamesmanship in that statement.

“With the same stench of political opportunism, Democrats have moved from playing politics with the terrible human tragedies of the Gulf Coast hurricanes to attempting to score political points off our men and women serving in Iraq,” Mr. Reynolds said.

However, the stepped-up push by liberal Democrats in the House and Senate to force a timetable on Mr. Bush for pulling out troops also triggered an increasingly bitter fight within the party.

When a group of Democratic war critics last week proposed an amendment in the Senate suggesting such a timetable, Sen. Joe Lieberman, Connecticut Democrat, spoke out against the move.

“I feel [it] will discourage our troops in the field, will encourage the terrorists and confuse the Iraqis,” Mr. Lieberman said.

When Mr. Murtha called Thursday for a phased troop pullout, the idea drew enthusiastic praise from House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, California Democrat, but not from Rep. Steny H. Hoyer of Maryland, the No. 2 Democratic leader and an early supporter of the war. He refused comment.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, New York Democrat and early front-runner for the party’s 2008 presidential nomination, has come under attack from anti-war activists for failing to demand troop withdrawals. In a broadside posted last month on liberal filmmaker Michael Moore’s Web site, war critic Cindy Sheehan sharply attacked Mrs. Clinton for supporting the war and for not joining Democrats’ calls for a pullout.

“I think [Mrs. Clinton] is a political animal who believes she has to be a war hawk to keep up with the big boys,” Mrs. Sheehan wrote.

Two of Mrs. Clinton’s potential rivals for the nomination, Sens. Russell Feingold of Wisconsin and John Kerry of Massachusetts, have offered proposals for withdrawing troops.

Mr. Feingold has drawn standing ovations from Democratic audiences in New Hampshire and elsewhere with calls to bring the troops home. His stand on Iraq “is already causing friction between Clinton and the left,” Michael Crowley noted last week in New Republic.

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