December 12, 2005

South Bay Democrats reflect rift within their party over Iraq
Harman wants "an events-driven" pullout plan. Waters favors withdrawal in six to 12 months.

By Toby Eckert
Copley News Service

WASHINGTON -- Reps. Jane Harman and Maxine Waters represent neighboring districts in the South Bay, but they are far apart on how -- and how fast -- U.S. forces should exit Iraq.

Harman, D-El Segundo, favors what she calls "an events-driven exit strategy," with troop reductions linked to a series of actions to stabilize the war-torn country. Waters, D-Los Angeles, was a founder of the "Out-of-Iraq Congressional Caucus" last spring, "to be the main agitators in the movement to bring our troops home."

While the differing approaches stem from long-established political styles -- Harman is a moderate while Waters is considered one of the most liberal members of the House -- they also reflect a broader debate among Democrats nearly three years after the war was launched, with no end to U.S. involvement in sight.

The debate was stoked by Pennsylvania Rep. John Murtha's call last month for the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq. Murtha is an ex-Marine and a moderate Democrat who had initially supported the war, so it boosted the credibility of others favoring a quick exit.

Waters is drumming up support for Murtha's resolution and favors a pullout in six to 12 months. She said she understands concerns that opponents have voiced about creating chaos in Iraq, but contends that "Murtha's plan takes all of that into consideration. It is a responsible plan that allows us to redeploy but keep some soldiers in the region."

Harman, the top Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, doesn't support the resolution, but she credited Murtha with reviving the congressional debate on Iraq. "I think the action by Murtha has caused a sea change in Washington," she said. "The administration's position is changing, and the subject of Iraq is back on the floor of the House. Those are good things."

After a trip to Iraq in September, Harman outlined an exit strategy in The Hill, a newspaper that covers Congress. It included getting other countries involved in stabilizing Iraq, settling political differences between various religious and ethnic factions there and accelerating the training of Iraqi security forces.

Harman also spoke favorably of a bipartisan Senate-passed resolution, backed by California Democratic Sens. Barbara Boxer and Dianne Feinstein, that said U.S. forces "should not stay in Iraq any longer than required" and 2006 "should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty."

"My point of view is in favor of an events-driven exit strategy," Harman said in an interview. "The coordinates that I believe are critical are to protect the troops and honor their sacrifice, and to make sure we leave Iraq in better shape than we found it."

The South Bay's third Democratic lawmaker, Rep. Juanita Millender-McDonald of Carson, did not return phone calls for comment.

When House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, recently embraced Murtha's position, it made some other Democrats uncomfortable. They distanced themselves from Pelosi's comments, noting it was her personal position and not that of the House Democratic caucus.

Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean further roiled the waters last week when he said, "The idea that we're going to win this war is an idea that unfortunately is just plain wrong." Many Democrats denounced Dean's comments, fearing they would reinforce the stereotype that the party is weak on war issues.

"I disagree with Dean," Harman said.

She has expressed concerns about a perception among voters that Democrats are weak on national security. Recently, she formed a political committee to groom Democratic candidates with strong positions on defense.

Waters did not endorse Dean's comments either. But she said Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had created a difficult situation for U.S. troops by not going into Iraq with enough soldiers initially.

Republicans have tried to turn the situation to their political advantage. They have denounced Democrats who have called for a swift withdrawal, while praising those like Connecticut Sen. Joseph Lieberman who have hewed more closely to President Bush's Iraq policies.

Some Republican lawmakers have also been highly critical of Bush's handling of Iraq, but few have put forward a timeline for withdrawal.

"I think it highlights the problems within the Democratic Party. You have a lot of disarray and disagreement within the Democratic Party," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said.

Pelosi responded, "Disagreement in time of war is essential to a governing democracy," but said Democrats were united in their view that Bush's current policies aren't working.

House Democrats held a caucus meeting to discuss Iraq this week, but did not emerge with a single position.

"I am more interested in a statement of principles," Harman said. "The goal is to get the policy changed."