The Times, Trenton

Lawmakers Feeling The Heat For Their Support Of Iraq War

The Times of Trenton — Tuesday, August 7, 2007

BY MATT EGAN

This year's congressional summer recess may be unseasonably warm for Reps. Chris Smith and Jim Saxton as anti-war groups continue to put the heat on lawmakers who back the war.

Smith, R-Hamilton, is among 31 House members and 10 senators targeted by an anti-war campaign called "Iraq Summer."

That movement has picked up steam in recent weeks and organizers have scheduled a rally outside Smith's office in Hamilton today at 10 a.m to "welcome" him back to the state for the August recess.

Smith and Saxton, R-Mount Holly, both voted with their party last month against a bill that would require President Bush to reduce troop levels in Iraq within 120 days of the bill's passage.

They also held the party line by voting for a bill in May that provided funding for the troops without a deadline but with bench marks instead.

Last week, both Saxton and Smith voted against a bill aimed at giving U.S. troops guaranteed time at home between deployments to Iraq.

Smith acknowledged the troubles in Iraq but expressed optimism that things are turning around there.

"I think things are not happening as fast as we would like. The sooner our troops are out of there the better," said Smith.

Despite their continued support for the war, both Smith and Saxton are known as congressmen who will break from the White House and the Republican caucus if necessary.

"Any incumbent, but especially a Republican incumbent, will have to explain to their constituencies why they may have supported the war and continue to do so," said David Rebovich, a professor of political science at Rider University.

Last week, the anti-war activists staged a parody at the State House on portraying Smith as "The Wizard of Jersey" for what they have called his "inaccessibility to the public."

Eve Weissman, an organizer for New Jersey Citizen Action, which is allied with the "Iraq Summer" campaign, said that Smith has been "M.I.A." and unwilling to speak with anti-war groups.

"On this issue, he is really, really disconnected from the people in his district. The fact that he refuses to meet in the district with his constituents is pretty sad," she said.

Smith, who has been a strong supporter of veterans benefits, maintained that he is in touch with the concerns of his constituents.

"The rank and file people are concerned ... But they also be lieve that there is still some hope, especially with this recent surge," said Smith.

When asked about the anti-war groups vying for his attention, Smith acknowledged that "people have a right to dissent" and said the two sides need to have a mu tual respect for each other.

But he also characterized the efforts as being well-funded operations that are "orchestrated from outside the district."

While Weissman said the movement does have ample resources, she said, "Ordinary people don't have the time to sit on the phone and play phone tag with his scheduler."

She insisted that the "Iraq Summer" movement represents the views of constituents, not just a national campaign.

The multimillion-dollar movement is funded by a coalition of national and state organizations, including Moveon.org.

"We wouldn't be able to carry it out without the support of activists from within his district," said Esther Garcia, an organizer for "Iraq Summer."

Defending his position, Smith pointed to a recent Op-Ed piece in The New York Times that was written by two members of the Brookings Institution and indicates real military progress in Iraq.

Also last week it was announced that the U.S. death toll in Iraq is the lowest it has been in eight months.

Smith credited an Iraqi military that has grown "increasingly independent and capable."

While he has voted against specific deadlines for when the United States should leave the war-torn country, he said he would favor a deadline that would be kept "a closely guarded secret."

He said, "If a deadline is announced, it gives an enemy that is very capable and very willing to engage in mass atrocities, a timeline to act."

Saxton also has continued to vote against firm deadlines.

"He has not thought that arbitrary deadlines were a good idea in the past and he doesn't now," said Jeff Sagnip, Saxton's press secretary.

"That said, he does want some tangible progress. We would like to see the time when (the troops) come home sooner and are not out there indefinitely."

When asked if Saxton has even considered changing his stance, Sagnip said it was "possible."

Smith said he believes it is the responsibility of the Congress to re- evaluate the status of the war and their positions after Gen. David Pe traeus' highly anticipated status report on the war next month.

Rep. Rush Holt, D-Hopewell Township, said it will be a "miracle" if Petraeus' report indicated that Iraq has met the necessary benchmarks.

Holt is in a far different situation than his Republican counterparts because he voted against the war and has been a constant critic of the administration's management of it. He also voted in favor of the recent bill guaranteeing time at home for troops.

Holt said he has noticed a different tone in the debate over the war during the past few weeks in Washington.

"There is a general recognition that our combat operations in Iraq will be ending," he said.

Holt may have to deal with questions from constituents about whether or not Democrats have done enough to stop the war.

"I'm not satisfied because the war hasn't ended," he said.

Rebovich said he doubts that Saxton and Smith will lose their seats over the war because both have a history of breaking with the party line and responding to their constituencies' concerns.

Still, he said they will likely face tough questions.

"The worst thing an incumbent can do is deny the legitimate concerns of the folks back home. At the very least they are going to have to answer questions."

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