Clinton on The Sidelines of Efforts To End The Iraq War

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The Los Angeles Times

Clinton on The Sidelines of Efforts To End The Iraq War

by
Noam N. Levey

WASHINGTON - Seeking to convince voters that she can end the Iraq war, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton has touted her role in the congressional effort to force President Bush to bring the troops home.0403 08

"I've been working day in and day out in the Senate to provide leadership to end this war," Clinton recently told an audience at George Washington University, contrasting her experience with that of rival Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois.

Clinton has been a vocal war critic and introduced three bills last year to curtail the U.S. military role in Iraq. The New York senator has also aggressively questioned administration officials involved in the war.

But since Democrats took control of Congress, Clinton has done relatively little to advance legislation to force the Bush administration to withdraw from Iraq, according to congressional records and lawmakers and staff members who have worked on the issue.

Instead, Clinton largely remained on the sidelines of the congressional debate, her legislation ignored as the Senate focused on measures developed by lawmakers who were more central to the legislative drive to end the war:

* Clinton played a marginal role in Democratic efforts to confront the president's troop "surge" early last year and later in developing the party's legislative strategy of tying money for the war to a timeline for a withdrawal.

* None of her war-related proposals -- which often mirrored measures introduced by other senators -- ever came up for a vote.

* She did not work with moderate Democrats who built GOP support for bipartisan antiwar legislation to overcome Republican-led filibusters.

* And Clinton not only did not develop any measures to mandate a pullout deadline, she actively opposed them until early last year.

"She lent her voice to the Democratic Party's criticism of the administration, which was important," said Julian Zelizer, a Princeton University historian who has written extensively about the current Congress. "But she certainly was not at the head of the move to legislate the end of the war."

Obama was equally peripheral to the Iraq war debate, but he has not claimed a similar leadership role. He has argued instead that his opposition to the war in 2002, two years before he was elected to the Senate, makes him the superior candidate.

In contrast to both Democrats, Arizona Sen. John McCain, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, was a leading voice in the debate, arguing for more troops in Iraq.

Clinton, who voted to authorize the war, has made her Senate experience -- along with her eight years as first lady -- a cornerstone of her argument that she is best prepared to be commander in chief "on Day One."

In Des Moines last summer, she announced a three-step plan to end the war, discussing her legislation "to begin bringing our troops home within 90 days" and to revoke the war authorization Congress gave President Bush.

"It is long past time that the president ended American combat involvement in Iraq's multi-sided, sectarian civil war. . . ." she said. "That is what I have been trying to do in the Senate."

In a March 17 speech in Washington to mark the fifth anniversary of the invasion, she explained that ending the war had been her "mission in the Senate."

And she pointed to another bill she introduced last year. "I've started laying the groundwork for a swift and responsible withdrawal beginning in early 2009 by demanding that the Pentagon start planning for it now," Clinton said.

Clinton has earned the support of some of the war's fiercest critics on Capitol Hill. Sixteen members of the House Out of Iraq Caucus recently signed an open letter praising Clinton as "the candidate with the stature, strength and experience needed to end this war as quickly and responsibly as possible." (More than 20 caucus members are backing Obama.)

"For years, Sen. Clinton has been committed to finding any and all possible ways to get the president to reverse his failed policies in Iraq and end the war," said senior Clinton advisor Philippe Reines, noting her three visits to Iraq, her work on the Armed Services Committee, her speeches in favor of a withdrawal and her legislative proposals.

Yet, while Clinton introduced Iraq-related bills -- as have scores of lawmakers -- other senators wrote the war-related legislation that was actually considered, handled delicate negotiations over compromise proposals and worked to round up votes.

These included Delaware's Joseph R. Biden Jr. and Michigan's Carl Levin, the chairmen of the Foreign Relations and Armed Services committees. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) early last year asked them to draft a resolution with Republicans opposing Bush's surge plan to send about 30,000 more troops to Iraq.

Biden and Levin were among a small group of Senate Democrats that Reid regularly convened in his second-floor Capitol office to strategize about Iraq legislation. The group included not only members of the Democratic leadership but other lawmakers interested in Iraq, such as Rhode Island's Jack Reed, an Army veteran, and Wisconsin's Russell D. Feingold, a staunch war opponent.

The group did not include Clinton.

Clinton did not work on the anti-surge resolution that Biden and Levin developed, according to Senate aides who asked not to be identified when discussing Senate negotiations. She did sign onto the legislation after it was introduced, as did 17 other senators.

She also did not collaborate with a second bipartisan group of senators led by Republican John W. Warner of Virginia, who drafted an alternative resolution.

On Feb. 16, 2007, as senators were debating the surge, Clinton filed her first Iraq-related bill of the new Congress, a proposal to halt the surge and to link continued authorization for the war to a troop withdrawal.

She rounded up no co-sponsors. And her bill was referred to the Foreign Relations Committee, becoming one of dozens of pieces of Iraq-related legislation that were never debated.

Obama's only legislation to end the war, which would have stopped the surge and mandated a phased withdrawal, was similarly shunted off to the committee after he introduced it on Jan. 30, 2007.

Most of the Capitol was at that time focused on the next question in the Iraq debate: Would Democrats try to restrict money for the war?

Once again, other lawmakers played the leading roles in that intraparty debate.

Feingold pushed for a withdrawal deadline enforced by a funding cutoff. Levin and Reed drew up an alternative that conditioned additional funding on a withdrawal timeline.

Clinton was simply one of 51 senators who ultimately voted for the Levin-Reed plan. She did not participate in the Senate debate in the week leading up to the March vote on the measure, according to the Congressional Record.

Two months later, in May, Clinton announced that she and Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) would introduce legislation to end the authority for the war in Iraq, an idea that Biden and Levin had explored earlier in the year but then dropped.

Like her earlier legislation, Clinton's proposal never came up for a vote.

In July, Clinton trumpeted a bill she planned to sponsor that would require the Pentagon to give Congress a report on contingency plans for redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq.

But again, other senators had taken the lead in pushing that concept. Just a week before, Republicans Warner and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana had introduced a measure to do essentially the same thing.

Clinton did not work with the senior GOP lawmakers, however. Her proposal went nowhere.

Nor did she participate in efforts by centrist Democrats, such as Nebraska's Ben Nelson or Indiana's Evan Bayh, to write legislation with moderate Republicans. Aides to Maine's Susan Collins and Olympia J. Snowe, two of the most influential moderate Republicans, said they never heard from Clinton's office.

By then, Clinton, who was courting antiwar Democrats still angry about her vote to authorize the war, had embraced the strongest antiwar legislation pushed by Feingold. That proposal, which Clinton had voted against a year earlier, would have cut off funding for all but a limited number of military missions.

At a September hearing on Capitol Hill, Clinton told Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, and Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, that their upbeat reports on the surge required "the willing suspension of disbelief."

And in December, she attracted eight co-sponsors, including Obama, for her bill calling on the president to seek congressional approval for any long-term security agreements with Iraq.

But when Democrats pushed anew for legislation mandating a withdrawal in December and then again in February, Clinton wasn't there. She missed the votes.

© 2008 The Los Angeles Times

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