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The Courage to Vote Yes

Why voting to fund the war was the best way to end it

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To understand the recent passionate congressional debate about the Iraq war spending bill, and why so many committed antiwar Democrats voted for it, we must understand the difference between protesting and legislating. Lawmakers who understand how to use both are often a movements' most essential actors.

Protesting is a critical part of American democracy. At its core, it is designed to put pressure on government in the lead-up to legislative decisions.

President Bush is requesting a supplemental spending bill for ongoing operations in Iraq. In the opening congressional negotiations about this supplemental bill, antiwar Democrats like Rep. Peter Welch joined with courageous antiwar organizations to protest the request, with some threatening to vote against the bill and send it down to defeat. That principled protest stance forced Democratic leaders to add binding language into the bill that forces the president to complete a withdrawal of troops from Iraq by September 2008.

Many antiwar progressives, however, continued to threaten to vote against the supplemental bill - a positive move because it made sure Democratic leaders rebuffed attempts by Republicans to strip out the binding language. The protest brinksmanship, in other words, worked.

Unfortunately, the legislative process demands compromises and does not tend to create perfect outcomes. In this case, the glaring imperfection for the antiwar movement remains obvious: The Iraq war supplemental bill still includes funding for military operations in Iraq for the next 17 months. Thus, the question when the final bill came up for a vote was whether objections over this imperfection should outweigh the protest's success at forcing the inclusion of a law ending the entire war.

How does a principled legislator who wants to end the war decide what to do? By gaming out the possible outcomes.

Had these antiwar lawmakers joined with pro-war Republicans in voting the bill down, Democratic leaders would likely have come back to write a "clean" supplemental bill - one that funds the war but does not include the binding legislation to end it. It would be nice to believe that Democrats simply would not have brought up another version of the supplemental bill and thus funding would have been cut off by default, but that is impossible to imagine in a Congress whose majority right now may be Democratic, but is not, unfortunately, antiwar.

Under enormous White House pressure to not "leave the troops in the lurch," the Democratic leadership would have had more than 200 pro-war Republican votes to help pass a "clean," pro-war bill that did not include any of the provisions ending the war in 2008. Put another way, had antiwar lawmakers followed through on their protest threats and voted down the bill, they most likely would have ended up with a bill that enormously set back the antiwar cause.

By contrast, passing the Iraq supplemental with all of its odious flaws was the most effective step at this moment to end the war. Not only does the bill and its binding antiwar provisions have the best chance of passing in this Congress at this moment, they have the best chance of being signed into law because the president will not want to veto the funds for troops he spends so much time berating Democrats about.

Honest people can disagree with the tactics in this situation, but they cannot attack progressive Democrats for "selling out" the antiwar cause in voting for this bill. Decisions by antiwar Democrats and others to vote for this bill was a decision not about whether to end the war, but about the best way to most quickly end the war in an imperfect legislative arena.

Had the binding language been watered down or eliminated, it would have been a much different story. But with the binding language in the final House bill, the antiwar lawmakers who voted for it perfectly calibrated where protest stops and legislating starts. That took real courage, as compromises are never easy. And because of progressives' decision, Congress was forced to take a giant step towards finally ending the Iraq war.

David Sirota previously served as the spokesman for U.S. Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and then for the U.S. House Appropriations Committee. He is the co-chair of the Progressive States Network, which has helped 29 state legislatures introduce antiwar resolutions.

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