Only six Black members of the House of Representatives voted for the recent passage of the $124 billion Iraq supplemental, which passed 280-142, while 31 of their colleagues voted against it. However, Democrats largely voted against it 140-86 while passage was made possible with 194 Republican votes, only 2 voting against it.
The Congressional Black Caucus was accountable on this vote, since Blacks have been the strongest community against war in the Middle East. As an example, a Pew Center poll in 2003 showed that while 44 percent of Blacks supported the war, 73 percent of Whites supported it; but a recent Gallup poll found that 85 percent of Blacks say the war was a mistake (53 percent of Whites) and a poll by Blackmilitaryworld.com says that 73 percent of Blacks feel that the disastrous 50 percent drop in Black military recruitment is related to the war. So, Blacks have been and are still firmly against the war.
Blacks in the leadership had a more difficult time since there appears to be a price, as both Majority Whip Jim Clyburn and Bennie Thompson, chairman of Homeland Security voted for the bill on passage. However, to say they were merely following the leadership may be too simplistic, since Speaker Nancy Pelosi outright voted against it and David Obey, Appropriations Committee chairman said on the floor of the House that although he worked on it, he "hated it."
Staunch war opponent John Murtha, chairman of the Armed Services Committee voted for it because money for the troops would run out in a few months, putting them at greater risk of casualties, and thus, making Democrats politically vulnerable to Republican charges of having created the situation. Murtha's basic reasoning was that there was only a one vote majority in the Senate, which prevented a policy change at this moment (so a vote against would be merely symbolic). This reasoning was repeated by Rep. Kendrick Meek of the Black Caucus on C-Span one day before the vote as a guide to his own action.
Nevertheless, other Blacks felt free to oppose this bill because it had such strong Republican support and therefore, the party would not be vulnerable for not having failed "to support the troops." Sens. Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton both voted against the Iraq Supplemental, not wanting to be vulnerable to their own constituencies. But if there could be no basic change of policy because Democrats have such a thin margin in the Senate, then the Clinton and Obama votes (add the rejection of John Edwards) were symbolic as well.
But let's get down to brass tacks. Most members of the CBC also were released from voting for the war spending bill knowing that there was going to be a huge Republican vote for it, and that this would be enough to carry forward the domestic measures ("sweeteners" is what they're called) in the bill that Democrats had inserted. The bill contained new money for Katrina and Rita disaster relief, bolsters funding for Medicaid and Medicare, and increases the minimum wage to $7.25 per hour. This amounts to about $24 billion, money that they delivered by riding on war spending and might have had difficulty getting otherwise.
Such tactics have become substitutes for direct legislation dealing with critical problems that face urban areas where large populations of the "undeserving poor" are involved. Direct legislation for such purposes is now routinely held up, subject to the question, "where is the money coming from?" while priorities favored by the powerful get taken care of, even if the funding has to come in the form of budget deficits. Even with respect to this bill, George Bush and the Republicans railed against the domestic spending as "pork" that should be taken out. So, this Appropriations bill that extended the funding for the Iraq war was not only a deal between Democrats and Republicans that traded "benchmarks" for a date-certain timeline for withdrawal, it was also a deal that traded war funding for some critical domestic priorities.
Undoubtedly, because of the strong Republican support for war spending, a broad group of Democrats beyond the CBC, including those in the "Out of Iraq" camp, but also many of their more moderate colleagues, felt free enough to vote against the bill. In doing so, they understood that the domestic spending measures would pass which they favored because the socioeconomic status of many whites has likewise been threatened by the diversion of badly needed spending for domestic priorities, combined with the decline in jobs due to competition from low-wage immigration and foreign competition in the American auto industry.
We are likely to see this strategy used again and again. Democrats use Republican votes for the war to fund domestic priorities. Sad but true.
Dr. Ron Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Leadership Institute and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland, College Park, Md.