Liberal lawmakers in the war mainstream

By Noam N. Levey WASHINGTON, Los Angeles Times

Barbara Lee once called for a U.S. Department of Peace. Lynn Woolsey tried to revoke the Boy Scouts’ federal charter because the group excludes gays. And Maxine Waters accused the CIA of helping import cocaine into South Los Angeles. Their ideas made them folk heroes to the American left. But like slightly eccentric relatives at a family reunion, Reps. Lee, Woolsey and Waters were rarely invited to sit at the head table in Washington. Until now. The three California Democrats — who have been waging a passionate, four-year campaign to end the war in Iraq — find themselves in the mainstream as Congress prepares to debate a critical war-spending bill. And the group they lead, the more than 80-member Out of Iraq caucus, controls the fate of the most important war vote since the 2003 invasion. Last week, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., invited the three liberal lawmakers to her office as she tried to persuade them to support the measure, which would require the withdrawal of U.S. combat forces from Iraq by no later than August 2008. “They have really become the conscience of the caucus,” said Tom Andrews, a former Democratic congressman who heads the national Win Without War coalition. Andrews credits the three with forcing Pelosi to insist on a timeline for withdrawal. “We have no other choice but to act boldly,” Woolsey said recently. “It’s time Congress caught up to the people we represent, people who recognized long ago that the Bush Iraq policy is a train wreck.” Her district north of San Francisco was the site of an Iraq war protest featuring naked women spelling “PEACE” with their bodies. Nude peaceniks and other early war opponents now have a lot more company. A recent Bloomberg poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times found that 55 percent of those surveyed supported a withdrawal of all U.S. combat brigades from Iraq by March 31, 2008, with 39 percent opposing such a timetable. It was not long ago that Lee, Woolsey and Waters were waging far lonelier and more quixotic campaigns. Woolsey, a former welfare mother who would not look out of place teaching second grade in her hometown of Petaluma, was one of only three House members to vote against a 2004 resolution commending the Boy Scouts for the organization’s civic contributions. Lee, who represents a district where Gulf War protesters hurled stones at Berkeley fire trucks, was the only member of the House and Senate to oppose a resolution authorizing President Bush to use force against terrorists four days after the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. “We must not rush to judgment,” Lee said in an emotional speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. “If we rush to launch a counterattack, we run too great a risk that women, children and other noncombatants will be caught in the crossfire.” Within a day, the former community mental health worker received death threats and had to get police protection. “It wasn’t fun. … But that was the right vote,” said Lee, whose almost anachronistic opposition to U.S. military campaigns has won her the devotion of the anti-war left. After her vote, supporters wore buttons emblazoned with “Barbara Lee Speaks for Me.” Waters and Lee were among only 11 members of Congress to oppose a 2003 resolution expressing support for the troops in Iraq, complaining that it also endorsed the invasion; 491 lawmakers backed the measure. Their views weren’t always popular in America. They also weren’t always popular with their colleagues. When Lee, Woolsey, Waters and other lawmakers began the Out of Iraq caucus two years ago, they sometimes couldn’t find a room on GOP-controlled Capitol Hill to hold their forums. In 2005, Republicans tried to embarrass Democrats by forcing them to vote on a Woolsey resolution calling for withdrawal, at that time still a controversial proposal. “You upset the apple cart, and people aren’t all that happy with you,” Woolsey said. Then came Nov. 7, and Democrats swept into the majority on a wave of public frustration with the president and the war. Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders initially appeared reluctant to force Bush to end the war. As recently as the beginning of last week, it was unclear if Pelosi and her lieutenants would include timelines for withdrawing U.S. forces in the $124 billion war-spending bill. In deference to moderate Democrats wary of tying the hands of the military, party leaders even backed off ironclad training and equipment requirements that could have prevented some units from deploying to Iraq as part of the president’s troop buildup. Woolsey and other members of the Out of Iraq caucus loudly proclaimed they wouldn’t support any defense spending bill that didn’t include a deadline for ending the war, raising the prospects that liberals would derail the spending bill. They got their way. Pelosi and other House Democratic leaders first promised to include a timeline that would withdraw U.S. troops by the end of 2008. Then, they agreed to move the date up to August 2008. Pelosi met privately last week with Lee, Woolsey, Waters and Texas Rep. Lloyd Doggett, appealing to them to back the timelines. The next day, the House speaker met with an even larger group of lawmakers from the Out of Iraq caucus. Pelosi’s concessions still may not be enough to win the support of Lee, Woolsey and Waters, who continue to insist that Congress should demand withdrawal by the end of this year. But California’s leading anti-war lawmakers admit to some satisfaction that their proposals — once mocked as far-out schemes from the nation’s left coast — have become the mainstream. “Our district may be further ahead of the country,” Lee said last week. “But eventually the country catches up.”