Robert Novak

Murtha and Pelosi are setting party strategy in close collaboration with Rep. George Miller, Pelosi's close associate and consigliere. Murtha has made clear that the non-binding resolution, whose merely symbolic nature infuriates anti-war activists, was only the "first step." Murtha, chairman of the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, did not hide the purpose of setting standards for training, equipping and resting troops: "They won't have the equipment, they don't have the training, and they won't be able to do the work."

When Murtha revealed the strategy, the House Republican staff quickly dispatched e-mails to GOP members that list Democrats who had campaigned last year against restricting support for troops in the field. The messages asked: "Will they side with Jack Murtha and their leadership in Washington, or with the promises they made to their voters?"

But only eight such Democrats, including six newcomers, were listed. Rep. Nick Lampson, who returned to Congress from Tom DeLay's conservative Texas district, had said (according to the Associated Press) that "he opposes withdrawing until the Iraqi army is capable of controlling the country." Lampson declined to talk to me when I said I wanted to ask him about Iraq. Freshman Rep. Brad Ellsworth won election to a swing district in Indiana by saying (according to the Evansville Courier & Press) that "he would not support any measures that would cut funding for forces in Iraq." Ellsworth said he was "too busy" to talk to me after I said the subject was Iraq.

It seems all but certain that Democrats will pass what Murtha frankly calls an attempt to prevent funding of the surge. Improbable though it may seem, blunt and brassy Jack Murtha is moving close to command over U.S. policy on Iraq.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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