Democrats are in control, President George W. Bush is a lame
duck and Congressman Michael McNulty canít wait to start righting
by David King
Photos by Chris Shields
On Feb. 16, the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives
voted to admonish the administration of George W. Bush for
its plan for a troop surge in Iraq. U.S. Rep. Michael McNulty,
who has represented New Yorkís 21st District for 18 years,
was one of the 229 Democrats and 17 Republicans who voted
for the symbolic measure. In a sit-down interview with
Metroland a week before the vote took place, the congressman,
who was once considered moderate and who voted to authorize
the war in Iraq, spoke about how he came to stand against
the war, and how he wants to use the Democratsí new majority
to go beyond the symbolic vote to take action to ensure that
American troops are returned from combat in Iraq. In the interview,
McNulty also talked about his hopes for bipartisanship that
will address domestic concerns that he feels were neglected
by the former Republican majority.
You voted for the war in Iraq. You have since said that you
regret that vote. How did you come to that decision and how
did you begin your dialogue with the local peace movement?
always had an open-door policy. I will meet with any group
who wants to meet with me. So I had been meeting with these
folks for years. . . . One of our initial meetings was back
just prior to the vote in 2003. We had met before then, but
this was on the eve of the vote so it was a critical meeting.
I think there were 20 or 22 people, and I said, ĎEverybody
is going to speak at this meeting. Everybody.í We were going
around the table. Everybody had their say. I explained my
position and what my major concern was at the time. I said,
ĎI donít buy the connection between Saddam and 9/11. I am
concerned about the administration saying that we have evidence
of the build-up of weapons of mass destruction, chemical and
biological weapons, because of the fact Saddam Hussein, no
question, had them before and used them and killed at least
tens of thousands of people.í I told them the thing that was
really determinative to me was when they told usóand Iím not
repeating anything that was confidential, because the president
ended up making this case to the countryóthat Iraq was within
12 months of nuclear capabilities. Now, you talk about nuclear
capability and Saddam Hussein, my view is, this canít happen,
because here is someone who developed weapons of mass destruction
before and used them.
What happened in between that and where I am now is basically
looking at the facts, and particularly the report of the 9/11
Commission. That 9/11 Commission was a pretty impressive group
on both sides. They didnít have split votes. They were all
unanimous. Obviously, the thing we knew in the beginning was
there was no connection between Saddam and 9/11. No weapons
of mass destruction, not even evidence of a nascent nuclear
capability. Nothing. I donít see how anybody who voted the
way I did doesnít look at that evidence and say that vote
was wrong. After I came to that conclusion, the question is,
ĎWhat do you do now?í Some people suggest that, regardless
of the fact that the information was not accurate, we did
invade the country so do we not owe it to the Iraqi people
to give them the chance for this new government and this new
way of life? My response to that is twofold. No. 1: Yes, we
do. And No. 2: We have fulfilled that responsibility. We have
seen them through not one, not two, but three elections. There
is a government in place, and the plan has always been, on
both sides, that we would train Iraqi police forces and national
security forces and they would, over time, supplant our troops
and allow us to reduce the number of troops and then eventually
withdraw, and that never happened.
president, from time to time, dipped before the cameras and
said we have to ratchet up the training process. Nothing is
wrong with the training process. We train top-notch police
and security forces in this country in six months. Weíve been
there four years. The problem is not the training process.
The problem is the Iraqis are not coming forward to volunteer
for service. And my question is, why should they? As long
as we make the open-ended commitment that we are going to
stay there and take all the enemy fire, what is the incentive
to step forward and do that?
I hear people say Democrats donít have another plan. Donít
say that to me! Iíve been saying over and over again, you
set a timetable for withdrawal, a target date for getting
all the troops out of the country and you start it now. Next
month x number of troops are coming home. The following month,
so on and so forth. And then one of two things is going to
happen: Either the Iraqi people are going to step forward
and defend this new government or they are not. If they do,
thatís fine; then the mission has brought some positive result.
Is there a consensus among your fellow Democratic representatives
about how to withdraw from Iraq?
think some of them are coming to the conclusion that we need
to set some sort of timetable. You know there are a couple
dozen bills on Iraq for sure, and most of them have some kind
of a timetable and some kind of a staged withdrawal. They
have different end dates, but they are basically the same
concept. Now some people want to go a step further, and Iím
one of them. . . . Next week [this interview took place on
Feb. 9] we are going to do a resolution that is going to say
that we are in disagreement on the presidentís surge policy.
This is so ridiculous! I mean, I thought Ted Kennedy had the
best line on the thing: ĎWhy do you think the surge policy
will work if it didnít work the first four times?í Weíve done
it four times before!
Military experts have been saying that this will be different,
in that originally their approach was to not clean out the
insurgency, and now they are going to take the time to do
does that mean? Go in neighborhoods, try to do this, and then
you are going to stay there? I mean, thatís like putting a
big target on the forehead of our troops over there. I donít
see how that works at all. The point Iím trying to make is
all of the Democrats and a good number of Republicans are
going to vote against the surge policy, I think. We had a
caucus, and it was determined that the resolution was going
to be pretty simpleóthat we support our troops, respect what
they are doing under the order of their
commander-in-chief, but we do not agree with this policy,
and specifically do not agree with a surge policy.
will get an overwhelming vote in my opinion, a somewhat bipartisan
vote. But it doesnít have any affect on the policy itself.
I think the only way we can affect the policy is to cut off
this unlimited stream of funding. There will be a supplemental
budget request by the president for almost $100 billion specifically
for this purpose. Thatís going to change from what the president
submitted, because the Democrats are in control in Congress
and they are going to amend that bill. And I know that some
of themóI donít know if it will be successfulówill try to
get included in that bill an exit strategy, an exit plan.
. . .
But I also do not believe, despite all the rhetoric that comes
out of the administration, that this commander-in-chief would
leave troops in the field in an indefensible position. I donít
believe that about George Bush. If we take away funding heís
going to have to withdraw those troops. I think thatís what
we ought to do if we canít get him to agree to a rational
How did you see things changing leading up to election night
2006, with the way the political atmosphere was changing?
think people around the country finally started taking a look
at the record of the Bush administration, and I think they
didnít like what they saw regarding foreign or domestic policy.
It was over five years since the attack on our country on
Sept. 11, 2001. We have approaching 30,000 young Americans
dead or seriously wounded in Iraq, in an effort to go after
the guy who did not attack us, while the person who did attack
us, Osama Bin Laden, is still alive, free, planning another
attack on our country. People finally saw the separation between
Iraq and the war on terror. The president always tries to
make them one and the same and obviously they are not. There
was a tremendous backlash against the Bush administration
for its policy in Iraq. . . . Then if you looked at domestic
policy and you saw the tremendous need . . . 47 million people
without health-care coverage. When the administration took
office in 2001, there were 39 million. The number is going
up. It is going in the wrong directionó39 to 47 millionóand
itís still going up. And what is his response to that? Have
a comprehensive health-care policy? No, letís have multi-trillion-dollar
tax cuts, most of which go to people who donít need them and
frankly, for the most part, didnít ask for them.
Giving these tax cuts is contributing to these large deficits
that Republicans always said they are against. Nine trillion
dollars. In the early days when I got elected and talked about
it, I was criticized by my own party because, you know, that
was not at the top of our Democratic agenda when I first went
to Congress. I was different from some of the Democrats, but
Iíve remained consistent about it through the years. I have
four daughters, five grandchildren, and I donít like what
our generation is giving to the future generations as far
as the fiscal health of the country is concerned. I see the
president now adopting what used to be the mantra of my party
years ago, which is, ĎDonít worry about deficit, donít worry
about the debt, donít worry, be happy.í I said the Democrats
were wrong in the late í80s, early í90s when they said that,
and I think the president is wrong today.
Talk a little bit about how ideas for the first 100 hours
came about, how you felt they were executed and what you think
was achieved, and maybe what wasnít.
wanted it to be a limited agenda, and we got it down to be
about half a dozen issues. They were pretty basic things.
Raise the minimum wage; it hadnít been raised in a decade.
A decade! The other thing we did was the ethics package, because
we had lost as an institution, I believe, the trust of a lot
of people in this country and that had to be taken care of.
So that was the first order of business. And then we wanted
to do something on a new minimum wage. We heard a lot from
people about the cost of college education, paying those bills.
So we cut the interest rate on student loans. We always hear
a lot from everybody, particularly on the other side of the
aisle, about national security, protecting our country. But
they left a whole range of recommendations of the 9/11 Commission
unfulfilled. So we wanted to do that. Stem-cell researchóso
many people in this country suffering from Parkinsonís and
Alzheimerís and other diseases donít have cures right now,
and the scientific community seems to have some hope and promise.
If we expand the stem-cell research we could do something
about these things. I think that we are generally in sync
in our views with a broad spectrum of the American people,
and I think that was shown when we had the votes on these
bills. We had 62 and 63 Republicans on average supporting
these bills. They were passed in bipartisan fashion. . . .
Now we are hoping that we can move through the Byzantine rules
of the Senate to get some action on those bills there. Just
because one house passes the bill, thatís not the end of it.
You want to make it law, so we have to go through the Senate
process as well. Unfortunately, they have a rule whereby the
majority doesnít rule. Itís got to be like 60 votes. We are
working on that.
The face of the New York delegation has changed. How do you
hope to work with the new congresspeople from New York?
big thing is that we regained control of Congress, and I am
in the majority. So thatís something I am very happy about,
and my colleagues are very happy about. Iíve been around in
Congress for 18 years now. My first six were in the majority.
I was just getting used to it, and then I was in the minority
for 12 years. To be in the majority and be able to set an
agenda, to drive an agenda is really invigorating, and Iím
just so happy about the possibilities that lie ahead.
you expect to have more bipartisanship during the next two
100-hours agenda was palliative in that regard. We took issues
that, obviously, they didnít act on before but where we knew
a certain number of their members had to come to the conclusion
that this was a good thing to do (and the Republican leadership
knew this before; thatís why they didnít bring them up), and
we put those items on the agenda. We got these things to the
floor. We put them on the floor, and you got an average of
60-odd Republicans voting for your bill. You know that itís
not all partisan. This is something that should have been
done a long time ago. I think the fact that we had such bipartisan
support on those items means that we should have as our objective
picking common-sense items in the future, where we can forge
some agreement and pass those things and put pressure on the
White House in the end to sign some of these bills. Now, Iím
under no illusion that he is going to sign them all. Heís
going to veto some things. But that should not stop us from
trying, because I also believe, on the flip side of that,
that he may very well sign some of them. Iíll give you an
example: that minimum-wage bill comes to his desk, I donít
think heís going to veto it.
It has been said that the president didnít react quickly enough
during the election. Now that the election has passed, there
seems to be a sense of confusion or disappointment among the
public that the president has not gotten the message of the
overwhelming vote. Do you think we will see a change,
an actual change in the presidentís policies?
wasnít their PR. It was their policies. And people finally
put all that together. I donít think there is anything they
could have said or done politically in the last election that
would have prevented the outcome. I do think if you see the
shift with the number of Republican representatives and senators
who will vote for some of these measures, and I think when
the measures get to the presidentís desk if he sees 60, 80,
90 Republicans voting for the bills, heís going to think twice
about vetoing those bills.