Junior Democrats describe an “Iraq fatigue” setting in among some members after dozens of successful withdrawal votes failed to drive a wedge between Republicans and President Bush on the war strategy.
The restless Democrats acknowledge the war issue remains critically important for the country, but they would like to see their leaders tone down the rhetoric and avoid showdowns with Bush over the war, wherever possible.
Still, heading into 2008, Democrats have not articulated as clear a game plan on how to handle the political debate on the war as they had heading into 2007.
"My hope would be we start looking at real solutions instead of the dichotomy of cut funding versus stay forever," said Rep. Brian Baird (D-Wash.), who had a change of heart this fall after visiting Iraq and realizing the military surge was working.
"The entire policy has been dictated by the 'Out of Iraq Caucus' ... What are we going to do, have another 40 withdrawal votes?"
Pelosi told reporters Wednesday that her top priority is still ending the war, although she allowed her own disappointment in being unable to force the president to change his Iraq policy.
But the California Democrat also said that the economy and health care are rising concerns among voters and that she wanted to dramatically increase federal funding for scientific research.
Pressed on her legislative plans for 2008, though, Pelosi reiterated that ending the war is her ultimate goal, promising more oversight hearings on Iraq and the broader Middle East.
And she suggested Democrats would somehow move to decouple the larger Iraq debate from the struggle with Bush and the Republicans over war funding.
“This will always be the pre-eminent issue until it is not there any more,” she said.
“The war, the war, the war: It eclipses everything we do here.”
In the Senate, Reid vowed no retreat on the war either, despite a united Republican Conference that has been able to repeatedly frustrate Democrats by filibustering attempts to force Bush’s hand on the war.
“We have had 33 [recorded] votes on Iraq and we are going to have more votes on Iraq. We are going to continue putting the pedal to the metal,” the Nevada Democrat said.
“We are going to push on this. The American people are dissatisfied with what is going on there.”
Congress will face several votes on Iraq next year, including one in early April to fund combat operations in Iraq for the rest of the year and possibly into 2009, when a new president takes over.
Another option being considered by some top Democrats is to pass a short-term wartime funding bill, running only until September or October, which would force Republicans to vote on the issue again shortly before the November elections.
Debate over the new defense authorization and spending bills will also provide other opportunities for war opponents to force a showdown with the president and his fellow Republicans.
And early high-profile hearings are planned to hear again in March from Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador there, on the progress of the war and the efforts to bring about political reconciliation.
Many Republicans, buoyed by the declining violence in Iraq, hope Petraeus will announce accelerated troop withdrawals, potentially defusing the war as a front-burner election issue.
But the final war-funding votes of the 2007 session this week signaled that the momentum for troop withdrawal votes has been stymied for the moment.
Only 25 Senate Democrats voted against the Iraq funding measure, and 78 House Dmocrats ended up backing the $70 billion in new funding for military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.) voted for the funding, while Pelosi opposed it.
Senior Democrats and leadership aides suggest that Reid and Pelosi, despite their strong rhetoric on ending the war, are not talking about simply forcing more withdrawal votes, as that strategy of repeated pullout votes has not worked in forcing a hoped-for split between Bush and Republicans in Congress.
Instead, Democrats plan to continue to focus on troop readiness and benchmarks for political reconciliation among Iraqi leaders, and to push Bush to accelerate any withdrawals called for by Petraeus and to engage in a broader “diplomatic surge” to accompany the military surge.
The president is traveling to the Middle East in January, and Democrats believe they can refocus attention on areas where he has failed to make headway, such as Israeli-Palestinian relations.
“The most important thing to do is to fix what has not been right with the war — they [the Bush administration] have never had a political or diplomatic strategy,” Emanuel said.
“We will continue to do our job on oversight and push the administration to come up with a political and diplomatic strategy.”
Congressional Democrats also acknowledge that they will have to coordinate the political agenda and message for 2008 with their presidential nominee, further complicating the war debate in Congress.
Still, the shift to a more finessed approach on Iraq will certainly anger a vocal anti-war base, which threatens to be marginalized in 2008 if there is continued military progress in Iraq and some troop withdrawals.
Additionally, Democrats are planning to elevate the economy as the top election-year issue, eager to campaign on what they hope to call a “Bush recession.”
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), one of the leading proponents of a withdrawal strategy, said Democrats “cannot avoid votes on Iraq” as long as American troops are deployed there.
But he noted that “events in Iraq will dictate a lot of what happens” in Congress next year and what proposals the Democratic leadership will push.
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) agreed that “a lot of it depends on what’s happening on the ground.”
“Iraq fatigue” is a real possibility facing Democrats, however. Recent polls indicate public concern over the war has waned, as the economy, health care and other domestic issues grow in importance. Even many Democrats have tired of the constant focus on the war, noting that party leaders will have even less leverage to force Bush to change direction in his final months in office.
“The reality is that, as the weeks slip by for this president, we all know that Iraq policy is going to change in ’09 anyway,” said Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), arguing that 2007, not 2008, was the year for the Iraq policy struggle and that Congress should move onto other “kitchen table issues.”
“Trying to do it [change Iraq policy] in ’07 makes more sense then trying to do it in ’08,” he said.
Pryor would like Democratic leaders to push through a new farm bill and cut estate taxes, as well as reauthorize the Federal Aviation Administration.
Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), elected last year in large part on the strength of his opposition to the war in Iraq, said Democratic leaders should just acknowledge that forcing Bush to accept a short-term funding bill for the war, instead of getting the yearlong, $200 billion package he sought, is in itself a major political victory.
“Democrats have to think more strategically on Iraq,” Webb said. “It’s very difficult to shut off Iraq funding and Afghanistan funding. .. Democrats keep getting into a one-dimensional argument on the military and funding [the war].”
Pelosi and Reid, though, must be mindful of the Out of Iraq Caucus in the House and the Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate, who want a quick end to the war.
"It’s time to redouble our efforts and highlight the damage that this occupation is doing to the people and country of Iraq, to our armed forces, to our national debt, to our image abroad and most importantly to the thousands of military families who have lost a loved one or are caring for an injured service member,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), one of the leaders of the Out of Iraq Caucus.
“This issue isn’t going to go away. I won’t let it, and the American public won’t stand for it.”