War puts longtime allies at odds

Published March 15, 2007

WASHINGTON - As they walked last month through the U.S. Capitol, where partisanship often trumps friendship, Democrat John Murtha let Republican C.W. Bill Young in on a little secret: Soon, he would propose restrictions on military spending that could force President Bush to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq.

The heads-up from Murtha - a full month before he revealed his plan publicly and sent Congress into its current tizzy - is testament to the close relationship between the two silver-haired lawmakers who today will serve as their parties' point men when the House Appropriations Committee considers how long U.S. forces should remain in Iraq.

For years, as leaders of the subcommittee that controls defense spending, Young, 76, of Indian Shores, and Murtha, 74, of Johnstown, Pa., have operated above the partisan fray, tapping their friendship to strike difficult bargains no matter which party held Congress or the White House.

They have never failed to cut a deal. Neither can recall a significant disagreement in 30 years. But on whether Congress should limit how many and how long U.S. troops should stay in Iraq, they find themselves at an odd place: loggerheads.

Murtha, a decorated Marine, is leading his party's efforts to quit Iraq. And Young, for all his misgivings about the situation there, told his friend he won't vote to restrict the commander-in-chief's power to wage war.

"You know, Jack, it's easy to get into a war," Young told him. "But it's not always easy to get out."

Working it out

It was the early 1970s, and America had lost patience with another war across the world.

Murtha, who had won the Bronze Star for valor in Vietnam, and Young both landed appointments on the Defense Appropriations subcommittee, a prime spot for sending pork home while equipping the military.

They developed a fondness for one another. "When he said something we always paid attention because he knew what he was talking about," Murtha said.

Despite party friction, Young and Murtha generally have the same priorities: They want to keep an eye on spending and they want to ensure troops have modern, dependable weapons.

Twenty years ago, the two thwarted then-Defense Secretary Dick Cheney's attempt to kill development of the V-22 Osprey, the controversial half plane, half helicopter that enters service for the Marines this year.

During the Clinton administration, Murtha and Young agreed the Defense Department needed more oversight and they tried to provide it.

In 1986, when the Democrats ran the House, Murtha backed Young's pet project to set up a national bone marrow registry through the Navy.

"When we find a problem, whether he's chairman or I'm chairman, we try to work it out," Murtha said.

Until the Republicans lost control in the last election, Young was chairman of the defense subcommittee and Murtha was ranking member. Now the roles are reversed.

Except for seating position one can hardly tell the difference. When Murtha took the gavel in January, he largely kept Young's staff, a rarity in the spoils-of-war culture of Capitol Hill.

Young said the keys to their strong relationship are trust and communication. They confer every day in Washington, usually in person. They don't really socialize, but they often visit wounded troops at military hospitals with Young's wife, Beverly.

Most important, they tell each other what they're going to do beforehand. Players on Capitol Hill don't mind disagreement, but they hate being blind-sided.

"We talk to each other, then we go forward in trying to make sure we have an agreement," Murtha said.

Challenging times

War can test the best of allies.

Murtha has represented a largely industrial patch of coal and steel country near Pittsburgh for 34 years, not far from where Young spent his childhood. He was once what Republicans would call a good Democrat - fiscally conservative, pro-gun and hawkish.

But in late 2005, Murtha decided the Bush administration had failed to show much progress in Iraq, and force wasn't going to help. It was time to go.

Other members of Congress were saying the same, but they were liberals and no one much cared. Murtha's declaration, backed with 37 years of military service, meant something.

Now he wants to use the president's latest request for $100-billion in war funding to limit the war. He's a darling of the left, but vilified by Republicans for wanting to "cut and run."

Young defends his friend.

"I've always known Jack Murtha to be a strong supporter of the military and the decisions that military leaders make," Young said. "When we're talking about ... dollars for the military, he's the same Jack Murtha that's he's always been."

In fact, Young supports everything in Murtha's bill except select Iraq war restrictions.

Murtha's plan requires the withdrawal of U.S. troops by 2008, or earlier if the Iraqi government fails to meet military and political benchmarks.

It also would permit President Bush to send troops to Iraq only if they meet the military's own standards for rest and readiness. The president could waive those standards, which Murtha hoped would bring Young to his side.

"I considered it," Young said. "But I decided it was pretty much window dressing."

Even so, Young won't say he'll vote against whatever spending bill ultimately emerges, knowing he and Murtha still have time to dicker. The Appropriations Committee could change it today. Amendments could change it on the House floor.

Almost certainly it will change when House and Senate negotiators meet to reconcile the spending bills each chamber passes.

As in the past, Young and Murtha will be in the room.

"Mr. Murtha and I have worked together for so long, on so many things for the defense of our country ... and we've always come to consensus," Young said. "This time we may not. But who knows?"

Wes Allison can be reached at allison@sptimes.com or (202) 463-0577.