Friday, March 9, 2007

A video of Rep. David R. Obey criticizing anti-war Democrats as “idiot liberals” circulated on Capitol Hill yesterday, with Republicans using it as an example of Democrats’ split over the Iraq war.

The 20-term Wisconsin Democrat, who voted against authorizing force in Iraq in 2002, was caught in an unflattering light on tape by the Occupation Project, an anti-war group making the rounds on the Hill.

Yesterday, the chairman of the House Appropriations Committee apologized for yelling at the group and said his outburst was “another example of a country needlessly and painfully divided on a war that I have opposed from the beginning.”

When members of the group, including the mother of an Iraq veteran, asked during a six-minute impromptu conversation if he supported cutting troop funding as a way to end the war in Iraq, Mr. Obey exploded.

“We’re trying to use the supplemental to end the war … it’s time these idiot liberals understand that,” he said. “There’s a big difference between funding the troops and ending the war.”

Mr. Obey was responding to Tina Richards’ question about whether he would oppose the more than $100 billion supplemental spending bill that funds the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“Absolutely not. I’m the sponsor of it for heaven sakes,” he said, later asserting that the supplemental bill “ends the war.”

“If that isn’t good enough for you, then you’re smoking something that ain’t legal,” Mr. Obey said.

“No I’m not, sir,” a man accompanying Mrs. Richards responded.

The encounter started off on the wrong foot, as Mrs. Richards told a flustered Mr. Obey she’d left in his office a poem written by her son, a Marine just called for a third deployment in Iraq. It went downhill from there, with Mr. Obey pointing his finger, raising his voice and using the word “hell” at least five times.

David Swanson, a liberal blogger, first sent reporters the video at 8 p.m. Thursday, calling it “shocking.”

The anti-war group recorded the exchange Monday outside Mr. Obey’s office in the Rayburn House Office Building when tense negotiations on the supplemental were at their peak. The video of the encounter was quickly distributed by Republicans attempting to seize on Democratic disunity over Iraq.

“His fuse is shorter than my pinky toe,” said House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam of Florida.

Several lawmakers said the dust-up stemmed from exhaustive closed-door meetings the Democrats held this week to carefully craft pieces of the spending plan in a way that would appeal to the party’s conservative “Blue Dogs,” the nearly 50 staunchly anti-war members and American voters increasingly unhappy with the Iraq war.

The final product will be available to the public next week and likely be up for a vote in the House the week of March 19, lawmakers said.

Rep. Steve Cohen, Tennessee Democrat who has called for a troop withdrawal by Christmas, forgave Mr. Obey’s remarks despite their disagreement on the supplemental.

“I suspect that he was tired and used an adjective he wouldn’t have used had he been more rested,” Mr. Cohen said.

Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat and chairman of the Appropriations defense subcommittee, yesterday said it is “inappropriate to label,” but defended his colleague and dismissed the situation as “ridiculous.”

“I’m sure he was just saying it because when you go to a lot of meetings, your nerves get raw,” said Mr. Murtha, who worked with Mr. Obey and Democratic leaders to mold the Iraq spending compromise. “All of us have our different opinions and I respect all of them.”

Mr. Obey issued a statement yesterday apologizing.

“I respect their passion on the issue, I wish they would respect mine,” he said. “We are both frustrated, and that led us to have an argument that we never should have had because we both want to see an end to U.S. involvement in that war. What divided us was the question of how.”

Mr. Obey also criticized anti-war groups for mischaracterizing the fundamentals of the spending debate.

He told Mrs. Richards that a vote against the supplemental denies the troops body armor and cuts funding for veterans’ hospitals that she noted earlier in their conversation were grossly underfunded.

Mr. Obey said the supplemental language “makes it illegal to proceed with the war” and is the House’s “first opportunity in the four years of this misguided war to vote on a timeline for bringing it to a close.”

He added that Democrats “don’t have the votes to defund the war,” and later opened his jacket to display an empty pocket, shouting: “We don’t have the votes. Do you see a magic wand in my pocket?”

Republicans delighting in the spectacle sent no fewer than five e-mails to reporters yesterday including juicy quotes from the video and charging that Mr. Obey had “come unhinged.”

In a Republican strategy room, one staffer received an e-mail linking to the video on with the subject line: “Can we get this on Drudge ASAP,” referring to the Drudge Report Web site.

Rep. Paul D. Ryan of Wisconsin, the ranking Republican on the Budget Committee, said of his colleague: “Dave has always been known for speaking his mind.”

The “idiot liberals” is an ironic statement coming from Mr. Obey, who has a liberal voting record. In addition to opposing the Iraq invasion, he was the first lawmaker to call for the firing of former Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld for his handling of the war, a stance he pointed out to Mrs. Richards.

“I hate the war. I voted against it to start with,” Mr. Obey said.

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