But, since taking over as chairman of the powerful House Appropriations Committee last year, the Wausau Democrat has had limited influence on one of the most pressing issues in Washington - funding for a war he has opposed since before it began.
"I don't have a magic wand to stop the damn war," he said in a recent telephone interview.
Obey, who leads a committee that helps shape how the government spends hundreds of billions of dollars a year, now finds himself in the position of crafting legislation to continue funding the Iraq war even as he votes against those very measures.
The House is expected to vote as early as today on a bill that includes $165 billion to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan through part of 2009.
So far, the new Democratic Congress has approved nearly $200 billion for U.S. war efforts in the region, despite repeated threats from congressional leaders that they would not continue to approve money for the war without setting a deadline for a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq.
Again and again, Democrats have relented, and the amount of congressionally approved war spending now totals $700 billion.
Since taking the reins of the committee, Obey has endured pointed criticism from anti-war activists who want to see an end to the war and who urge Democratic leaders to use their control over the spending process to force a U.S. withdrawal.
"The power of the purse is what they've got," said Steve Burns, program coordinator for the Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice. "It's their reluctance to use the power of the purse that renders them powerless."
But Obey argues that he simply does not have enough votes to cut off funding for the war. He also says other options favored by war critics, such as not passing any spending bills to fund the conflict, are "theoretical" and unrealistic because doing so would effectively shut down the government, a scenario he says most Americans don't want to see.
In addition, many Democrats worry they would be blamed for leaving troops without the funding they need.
"The last time I looked, in a democracy, a majority is supposed to decide things," Obey said. "I can either pretend I can stop it or I can recognize the limitations of my authority."
What he has done, however, is craft measures that allow anti-war Democrats to go on record opposing the war while forcing Republicans to take a public position on the issue. Meanwhile, he has arranged separate votes on funding for the conflict to ensure the money goes through.
"He's very much like a circus juggler," said Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University. "It's a very hazardous undertaking. You've got to protect your own people and put pressure on the Republicans."
Echoes of Vietnam
Obey, 69, has served in Congress since he was just 30 years old. Once the youngest member of the House, he is now the third-longest-serving member, after fellow Democrats John Dingell and John Conyers.
A member of the Appropriations Committee since his first year in Congress, Obey has spent nearly all of his career preparing to hold the chairman's seat. He briefly led the committee in 1994 until the Republicans took control of the House the following year. He became chairman again in 2007 with a new Democratic majority.
When Obey first came to Washington in 1969, the U.S. was also at war. The conflict in Vietnam had dragged on for a decade and a growing number of Americans were fed up with U.S. involvement there. But the majority of Congress continued to support the war, and those who opposed it were hamstrung by House rules.
"Most (Democratic Study Group) members wanted to produce a plan that called for a timetable, and they attached conditions for triggering that timetable, but House rules clearly blocked that," Obey wrote in his recent biography "Raising Hell for Justice."
In an interview, Obey said the mood then was the same as it is today: "People were frustrated, people were angry."
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In 2006, it was that sense of frustration over the Iraq war that helped sweep Democrats back into power in both chambers of Congress. Anti-war activists expected to see more vigorous action against the war by the Democrats. Instead, party leaders engaged in standoffs with Republicans only to eventually back down.
'A betrayal of the people'
Last year, after attempting to set a withdrawal date as a condition for more war funding, Democrats relented, passing a spending bill in May that contained nearly $100 billion for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. In lieu of a deadline, Democrats settled for benchmarks for the Iraqi government and a requirement that President Bush report on the progress made in meeting those goals. Obey voted against the bill because it did not include a deadline to pull out of Iraq.
In September, Congress approved a wide-ranging spending bill that included $5 billion for mine-resistant vehicles in Iraq and voted two months later on another large spending bill that included an additional $12 billion for more vehicles. Obey voted for those bills.
Before leaving Washington late last year, Congress approved an additional $70 billion for war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan after vowing that Bush would not get any more money unless it came with a change in policy. In the end, Obey opposed the measure.
Some anti-war activists think he and other Democratic leaders can do more to force an end to the conflict.
"They were voted into office to end the war and they haven't ended the war," said Medea Benjamin, who helped found the anti-war group Code Pink.
"We think it's a betrayal of the people who put him in office," she said of Obey.
House leaders have another opportunity this week to highlight the escalating costs of the war. It's uncertain whether they will once again push for a deadline to pull out of Iraq.
Anti-war Democrats are not the only ones unhappy about the way Iraq spending bills have taken shape.
Republicans argue that emergency bills should not be used to fast-track unrelated domestic programs, such as a minimum wage increase in the spending bill that became law in May last year. The current House bill is likely to include an extension of unemployment insurance, an expanded veterans education benefit and disaster relief funding to deal with recent floods in the Midwest.
"This is the serious business of freedom," said Zach Wamp, a Tennessee Republican. "It needs to be funded without all the extraneous stuff, and frankly, all the tricks associated with getting what they want in addition to what we need."
Obey says he makes no apologies for using spending bills to get some of the tougher items on the Democrats' agenda through Congress.
That's about as much as Obey can hope to accomplish given the political realities he faces, said Scott Lilly, a former Obey aide who is now with the left-leaning Center for American Progress.
The Constitution makes it nearly impossible to stop the war if you have "a president who is unwilling to do so," he said, adding that failure to pass spending bills to fund the war would amount to a "huge institutional failure by the Congress."
He credits Obey's legislative skills for helping him navigate the House in such a way to ensure that troops get the money they need: "You're threading a needle that has a very small eye."
While most anti-war Democrats would like to see congressional leaders keep pushing for a withdrawal date from Iraq, many say it's tough to blame them for the impasse.
Obey, who calls the war the "dumbest, most misguided and unnecessary war since 1812," says he is doing all he can to influence U.S. war policy.
"Some people can't tell a friend from an enemy," Obey said. "If people want change, get yourself a president who will change the direction of the war."
© 2008 The Journal-Sentinel