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Democrats, divided on Iraq, turn to domestic politics
McClatchy Newspapers


June 19, 2006

WASHINGTON -- Unable to agree on a strategy for addressing the Iraq war, Democratic leaders in the House and Senate are trying to change the subject, retreating to the domestic front with a focus on pocketbook issues for the middle- and working-class voters.

They pledged if voters return their party to the majority in the November midterm elections, they will:




- Raise the federal minimum wage, from $5.15 per hour to $7.25.

- Cut in half the interest rates on student loans and make college tuition tax-deductible.

- Instruct the federal government to negotiate lower prescription drug costs with pharmaceutical companies.

- Pass legislation that could discourage oil companies from raising prices.

- Prevent privatization of Social Security.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, along with their respective whips, Rep. Steny Hoyer and Sen. Dick Durbin, made their pitch at a news conference Friday at the Capitol, shortly before the House voted 256-153 for a resolution opposing any timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq on the grounds it would endanger national security interests.

"The American people want a new direction," said Durbin, D-Ill. "The Democrats are telling them: We're ready for this election. We have the message, we have the candidates, and we're bringing that message to the American people."

But the war resolution, and the debate this week leading up to it, has exposed deep divisions with the Democratic Party over what military course to pursue in Iraq. At a liberal gathering last week, some war opponents booed Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, a potential Democratic candidate for president in 2008, when she said she opposes setting a specific date for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the party's 2004 nominee who spoke at the same liberal conference, said a timetable for withdrawal was needed.

Among Democrats, 149 House members opposed the resolution and 42 supported it, sending a mixed message to voters that strategists consider a potentially serious weakness for the party. Meanwhile, 214 House Republicans supported the resolution, while three voted to oppose it.

"Today's vote demonstrated House Republicans' overwhelming support for strong national security policies that aim to confront the threat of terrorism and eliminate it," Majority Leader John Boehner said in a statement released after the vote.

"Capitol Hill Democrats, once again, put their divisions and incoherence on display for the American public to see, offering no alternative except rhetoric about how to best concede defeat in Iraq and across the globe," he said.

To regain control of Congress, Democrats would need to gain six Senate seats and 15 House seats - a feat analysts have said is not impossible but would be difficult. When voters were asked in a recent Fox News/Opinion Dynamics poll which congressional candidate they planned to vote for in their own district this year, 33 percent said the Republican, 46 percent said the Democrat and 20 percent said they are unsure.

But for Democrats, particularly those running in moderate districts, their party's image on the war could prove a liability regardless of their personal stances.

As the 2003 invasion of Iraq by the United States to topple Saddam Hussein has descended into civil war that pits religious and insurgents groups against one another and the fledgling U.S.-backed democratic government, American voters have turned against the war and President Bush.

At the same time, polls show most voters do not support immediate withdrawal - a concept associated more with Democrats than Republicans.

At their news conference, Democrats did not directly address questions about how their divided stance on the war could affect them this fall.

"I personally don't think we should be looking at the Iraq war as to what is going to happen on November 7th," Reid said. "None of us are running victory laps on November 7th. We're focusing on what we can do to help the country on a day-to-day basis."

Pelosi argued that her party's absence of a unified position on the war shows Democrats aren't politicizing it. "We don't ask members to do one thing or another," she said.


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