Roll Call: House Liberals Seek Footing On Afghan War
President Barack Obama is close to a decision on sending as many as 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan, but House liberals are still scrambling to find their voice on the issue.
Members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, who were united in their opposition to the Iraq War, are scattered on how to handle the Afghanistan conflict. Some are demanding an immediate troop withdrawal, while others press for a scaled-back troop increase tied to timelines and resources for economic development.
"The Progressive Caucus does not have a stand on it at this moment," Co-Chairwoman Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.) said. "We will. We'll have our set of principles and expectations, but health care sucked the energy out of everything. ... We know we've been quiet."
The 83-member caucus has also been split over whether to wait for Obama to lay out his strategy before weighing in versus proactively staking out a position on the war in advance of Obama's decision, an approach advocated by Woolsey.
The former appears to have won out, however, given that Obama is expected to lay out his Afghanistan strategy at some point after Thursday, when he returns from a trip to Asia. And while it may be too late to have any effect on Obama's decision, many CPC members are rushing to send him a letter Wednesday that outlines their policy priorities: concerns about a troop surge and the need for timelines for withdrawal, clear goals and measurements of success.
"Unfortunately, we have been quiet," said Rep. Raúl Grijalva (D-Ariz.), also a CPC co-chairman. But he suggested that behind the silence has been an evolving position toward Afghanistan, which in recent months has been dominated by news of government corruption, misspent U.S. dollars and rising U.S. casualties.
"I think the whole dynamic of the argument [for troop increases] has changed," Grijalva said. News of more violence and corruption has had a significant effect on "people who said they were willing to tolerate more troops ... two months ago if they were tied to an exit strategy."
Grijalva said he gave Obama credit for rethinking his strategy toward the region because, in effect, it "gave us a great opportunity to also rethink just the idea of an exit strategy."
Despite their lack of a unified voice, many House progressives agree that the majority of the caucus is opposed to any troop increases and is prepared to deliver a blow to Obama if he requests more war funding from Congress.
"It does look like, because we have our president in the White House, we're giving him a little bit more room. But that wasn't intended," Woolsey said. "We're going to disagree if he wants to put a whole bunch more troops in there."
The caucus is scheduled to discuss Afghanistan in a Wednesday meeting. Grijalva said he plans to press the issue of whether it is time for the caucus to unite behind the need for troop withdrawals.
"We need to deal with this question. It continues to swirl around us as a caucus," Grijalva said. "We either are going to be for an exit strategy that includes more troops or a strategy that is just an exit strategy. ... These are two different questions. It's not a fine line, it's a choice."
Rep. Mike Honda (D-Calif.), chairman of the CPC Afghanistan Taskforce, said he plans to organize forums for the caucus over the next two weeks to help answer questions about different policies toward Afghanistan, namely relating to timelines, reconstruction and reconciliation.
"The forums we put together will help us solidify our thinking and our position. It is important to give the president the best thinking we have," Honda said. "I think we still have time to discuss it before the president makes his final decision."
But Honda added that, even with more information from experts, Obama would "have to be pretty damn convincing" to get him to support sending any more troops into Afghanistan.
CPC members have largely rallied behind three bills filed by fellow liberals: Rep. Jim McGovern's (D-Mass.) proposal to create withdrawal timelines and measurements for success; Rep. Barbara Lee's (D-Calif.) proposal to prohibit funds for troop surges; and Honda and Grijalva's proposal to invest 80 percent of funds in infrastructure and economic development and 20 percent in security.
But even the proposal to spend 20 percent of funds on military operations, as compared with 90 percent now, is still hard to swallow for leading anti-war voices like Woolsey and Lee.
Lee said she will "absolutely" oppose any troop increases, regardless of whether there is an exit strategy, because "the more troops that go into Afghanistan, the more open-ended the war becomes."
"Some of us are feeling, We're done,'" added Grijalva, who said he will also oppose any troop increases, regardless of a broader strategy. "I think that sentiment is pretty strong."
Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio), who has opposed every war funding bill for Afghanistan, complained that House Democratic leaders have put progressives in "these untenable positions" by pairing votes on war funding with issues that they support, such as the hate-crimes bill.
"These are the kinds of games that are being played to try to win votes," said Kucinich, citing another vote for war funds that was paired with extending unemployment insurance. "Members have been trapped into voting for funding. ... There's only so many machinations you can demonstrate before the game is done."