'Iraq Watch' Finds Strength in Numbers
WASHINGTON – It started as a one-man protest on the House floor by a hawkish Democrat disgruntled with his president's strategy in Iraq.
But the weekly "Iraq Watch" by Rep. Joseph Hoeffel (search) of Pennsylvania has since found strength in numbers. A half-dozen Democrats now take the floor regularly to lambaste the White House at the start of Congress' legislative week.
"I was frustrated," Hoeffel said. "I thought my own party's leadership was timid on Iraq. And I just wanted to start talking about it - I thought we needed to be more vocal.
"So I started on my own and found, when I started, other guys were interested," Hoeffel said. "We're gaining speed."
Hoeffel voted last fall to authorize the use of U.S. force in Iraq, but has since accused the Bush administration of straining relationships with international allies through "cowboy diplomacy."
The vitriol remains constant during the hour-long discussion as the Democrats disparage Bush administration policy, from the so-far unsuccessful search for weapons of mass destruction to resistance to sending in NATO (search) and U.N. peacekeepers. Some of the banter is tinged with humor; other parts sarcasm.
Aside from Hoeffel, Iraq Watchers include Democrats Rahm Emanuel of Illinois, William Delahunt of Massachusetts, Neil Abercrombie of Hawaii, Jay Inslee of Washington and Robert Menendez of New Jersey.
For the most part, the debate seems to have fallen on deaf ears.
Iraq Watch is held during floor time designated specifically for Democrats, meaning Republicans generally don't bother weighing in. Moreover, the debate usually begins in the evening after most lawmakers have left for the night.
Officials at the White House and in the office of House Majority Whip Roy Blunt, a Missouri Republican who is generally responsible for managing the House floor, were unaware Iraq Watch even existed when asked for comment.
Rep. Jack Kingston, R-Ga., dismissed Iraq Watch as partisan piffle, calling it "a kind of smug, weekly report from some dissident congressmen who are likely to be Kucinich delegates at the Democrats' national convention."
Dovish Rep. Dennis Kucinich, D-Ohio, is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination and is considered a long shot.
At its roots, Iraq Watch follows a well-worn path on the House floor of lawmakers trying to shake things up, said Heritage Foundation political analyst Michael Franc.
The most prominent debates generally have been led by conservative Republicans - like former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who planted the seeds for his 1994 Contract With America (search) in similar floor speeches in the mid-to late 1980s.
"They went down every night and absolutely hammered the policies of the then-Democratic Congress," Franc said.
For Hoeffel, Iraq Watch also provides a televised spotlight on the national C-SPAN cable channel as he runs for the Senate next year. But he insists his efforts are not aimed at political gain.
"Hopefully, it's interesting for people to listen to," Hoeffel said. "They may not agree with it, but hopefully it's a discussion that helps to educate people and bring up stuff. And we're going to stick with it."