LAST SATURDAY, DEMOCRATIC Representative Jerrold Nadler of New York mounted the stage at the antiwar rally on the Mall. Though he doesn’t sit on the relevant committees, he’d just introduced a gutsy bill in the House to cut off funds for Bush’s “surge” and begin withdrawal from Iraq, and he was hoping to present it to the crowd. But, sadly, the rally’s organizers had chosen Representatives Dennis Kucinich, Lynn Woolsey, and Maxine Waters,who also have Iraq bills, to speak instead. Wearing a two-button blazer accessorized with a brown accordion folder that gave him more the look of an airline executive than a peace activist, Nadler lumbered up onto the dais anyway, where an eager buddy shoved him forward. “Hey, give him a shout! He has—a bill,” the rally’s emcee said. Then she ceded the microphone to the next speaker, leaving Nadler to mill about awkwardly on the stage amid a glowering Jesse Jackson, the lawmakers who were actually speaking, a coffin, and the ragged, ill-dressed members of the protest’s house band.
It’s a brutally competitive world out there for Democratic representatives with ideas on Iraq. Even though the leadership has decided to let the Senate make the first move (which will be a nonbinding resolution condemning Bush’s plans), Iraq is a hot and fertile topic, and bills are sprouting in the House like mushrooms. Many of them seem, at first glance, strangely redundant: H.R. 508 calls for a full redeployment (within six months)—as do H.R. 455(by December 31), H.J. Res. 18 (”at the earliest practicable date”), and H.R. 413 (”in a safe and orderly manner”). But the market is not yet saturated. Several other representatives,including Steve Israel of New York and James McGovern of Massachusetts, are considering putting out their own. “There’s gonna be more,” says a Democratic aide with a sigh.
Why are so many Iraq bills flourishing? The atmosphere on the Hill is one of the freest for Democrats in memory: Many are experiencing being in the majority for the first time, and they’re stretching their arms and whipping out the plans that had lain dormant under Republican rule. “Maybe [these bill-producing congressmen] had ideas before and their staff was like, `No.’ And now they’re like,`We can’t stop them!’” explains an aide to a representative with a bill.
But this brood of bills is about to undergo a fierce round of natural selection. Though there is growing consensus within the Democratic caucus that Bush’s foreign policy has been a total disaster—in an incredible show of unity, a nonbinding resolution will probably pass unanimously among Democrats in both houses—there is no consensus over what to do about it. For the more aggressive bills—the ones that go beyond symbolic condemnation and actually try to change the course of events in Iraq—a host of threats stand between them and survival, from dissatisfied antiwar groups to bloodthirsty Republicans. But the Democrats’ own leadership may be the cruelest predator of all.
A FEW DAYS before the rally, a horde of cameramen and gossip reporters crammed into California Representative Lynn Woolsey’s office to see the radiantly bronzed Susan Sarandon, squeezed nearly into Woolsey’s lap on the congresswoman’s small couch. Sarandon was there to promo the Iraq bill put out by Woolsey, Waters, and Barbara Lee: As competing bills struggle to survive, these representatives were hoping that Sarandon would give legs to their bill so it would crawl out of the muck and walk in the sunlight.
There are people overseeing intelligent design in this evolution process, after all, and buzz can make a difference. Most of the Iraq bills aren’t gunning to be passed as they stand—Bush’s veto power precludes that. Rather, their designers hope they will be selected as the lucky ones incorporated into the House Democrats’ future major Iraq legislation—which will most likely be Defense Appropriations Subcommittee Chair Jack Murtha’s rewrite of the supplemental budget the administration delivers to Congress next week. Forget the nonbinding: It’s the money that really matters. And there are a million different tricks Murtha could add to the budget bill: Timelines. Cutting off funds for new deployments. Conditioning the funds on the scheduling of something like a peace conference. Benchmarks for the Iraqi army. (Benchmarks are “all the rage” right now, reports a Democratic leadership aide.) By creating a budget with money the president will have to sign for and conditions he will inevitably ignore, Murtha could even force a balance-of-powers constitutional clash that might go to the Supreme Court.
But the political atmosphere that surrounds all these options is, as hard- charging freshman Representative Steve Cohen puts it,”touchy.” Make that noxious, as moderates and progressives battle over whether to touch funding. So the bills are trying out specific, even miniscule, tweaks in substance and rhetoric to see what flies with enough people to make it into a final proposal for the whole caucus: Does the word “redeployment” go over better than “withdrawal”? How soon is too soon?
AS SARANDON SEDUCED the lenses, I met Nadler outside the House chamber. Nadler believes Congress must limit the president’s war funding, but he also worries that such a move is a political liability: “No body armor. No undies. No ammunition,” he explains. “That’s a politically deadly image.” So he expressly designed a bill to “shift the rhetoric”: specifically, to strongly emphasize the word “protect.” Bush’s Iraq budget will be limited except for funds needed for “the protection of the United States Armed Forces”;its title is the “Protect the Troops and Bring Them Home Act of 2007.” Nadler has been talking to Murtha, trying to persuade him that “protect” might be the key to overcoming the concerns that divide the caucus.
But the most severe threat to Nadler’s bill, as well as the others,may be that the Democratic leadership exhibits little sense of urgency. Murtha’s committee won’t deal with the supplemental until at least early March. Meanwhile, the war goes on. The troops for the surge—the deployment of which a number of House bills,including Nadler’s, prohibit—board planes for Baghdad. Frustrated,Woolsey has talked to colleagues about sending a letter to Caucus Chair Rahm Emanuel begging him to let members debate Iraq strategy at this week’s Democratic House retreat in Williamsburg.
It may be that the leadership’s stately pace on Iraq is ingeniously calculated to bring more Republicans on board, a task akin to coaxing wounded, skittish horses into a corral. But some trying to stop the new deployments have a different explanation, one they claim they’ve discerned from members of the leadership: Go slow,and Republicans will continue to be held responsible for Iraq as it sinks further and further into chaos. “The question is, how far do you let [Bush] go out on his own before the Congress activates its responsibilities?” says an aide to a Democrat sponsoring a bill to prevent the surge. Letting him go out as far as possible may waste the powers of the new majority—but it has its political advantages. “The thinking is,” continues the aide, “‘Let it be George Bush’s disaster, and we can reap the benefits in 2008.’” “The Republicans own this thing right now,” even Nadler admits. “The temptation is there.”
This article appeared in the February 12, 2007 issue of the magazine.