WASHINGTON — After starting the 110th Congress with a big antiwar mandate, Democrats are scrambling to find a way forward on an issue that is driving wedges deep into their new majority.
At issue is how aggressively Democrats can challenge President Bush's war policy without alienating so many of their own caucus members that they lose key votes.
The next test will be how the House handles Mr. Bush's $93.4 billion war-funding request, which comes before the Appropriations Committee next week.
"It's a work in progress," says Rep. Ike Skelton (D) of Missouri, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, commenting on behind-the-scenes talks this week to find a consensus within the Democratic caucus on the war.
Early in the week, House Democrats balked at a proposal by Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the Defense subcommittee on that panel, to use the war-funding request to rein in Bush's options as commander in chief.
Mr. Murtha's plan, announced on an antiwar website, proposed that the funds be used on the condition that the Pentagon meets standards of readiness and training for troops to be deployed to Iraq.
After a fractious caucus meeting on Tuesday, House leaders backed off the Murtha proposal, but opened new rifts with liberals in their caucus who favor stronger moves to get US forces out of Iraq.
"The American people are going to have a great deal of difficulty with Democrats who say they oppose the war, yet vote to fund it," says Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D) of Ohio, who is also a presidential candidate.
A longtime, staunch supporter of the military, Murtha has emerged as a lightening rod in an intense intraparty debate over how to end US involvement in Iraq.
On the one hand, the 44-member Blue Dog Coalition, which is made up of fiscal conservatives, opposes moves that would either deprive US troops of funding they need or appear to micromanage the war.
"There's a growing consensus for setting standards for our troops to be well trained, well equipped, and well rested, but to also give the president waivers," in case such guidelines cannot be met, says Rep. Chet Edwards (D) of Texas, who chairs the subcommittee on military quality of life and veterans' affairs.
Such waivers would require Bush to "take responsibility for troops not being well trained," and would make any lapses in training or equipment more visible to the public. But the waiver policy still allows Bush to send reinforcements to "bring home a battalion that's worn out. Without such flexibility, it would be micromanaging," he adds.
On the other hand, the 71-member Congressional Progressive Caucus (CPC), the largest group of Democrats in the House, is calling for a "fully funded" withdrawal of US forces from Iraq within six months.
"I'm telling them point blank that the only money I'll support is fully supporting the withdrawal of every last soldier and contractor in Iraq," says Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D) of California, who chairs the CPC. "There's going to be a respectable showing of members against the [defense] supplemental [spending bill], unless it is clearly to support our troops, while bringing them home."
A lawmaker at the heart of next week's firestorm over funding, Rep. David Obey (D) of Wisconsin, who chairs the full House Appropriations Committee, notes that Congress struggled for years to find consensus over how to end the war in Vietnam. "Between 1970 and 1972, we had 31 different approaches, before we got a vote that had teeth," he says.
Moreover, the focus on Democrats is misplaced, he adds. The war will end "when enough Republicans go down to the White House and say, 'Mr. President, it has to end,' " he says.
On the Senate side, the Appropriations Committee that will pick up this bill after it clears the House is chaired by Sen. Robert Byrd, one of the strongest and earliest critics of the Iraq war.
"The Congress has consistently supported our men and our women in uniform, Congress will continue to support our troops and their families," he said at that panel's first hearing on supplemental war funding Feb. 27. But he added that "Congress is not a rubberstamp or presidential lapdog, obedient and unquestioning."
Meanwhile, Senate Democrats are as deeply divided as their House counterparts over the best approach to respond to Bush's call for a surge of 21,500 troops in Iraq.
After Senate Republicans blocked votes on a nonbinding resolution opposing the troop buildup earlier this month, Democrats have been working to draft a binding resolution, which may include the repeal of the 2002 authorization to use force in Iraq.
"Quiet conversations are going on behind the scenes addressing the concerns raised by some in the caucus," says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
Senate Republican and Democratic leaders also say they are close to agreement on debating Bush's proposal for a "surge." "This time, it looks as if we will be able to offer amendments," including one that commits the Senate to fully funding the war, says Don Stewart, a spokesman for GOP leader Mitch McConnell.