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Freshmen 42: The Last Walz on Iraq vote

Rep. Tim Walz (D-Minn.) returned home to southern Minnesota late last week after having endured a self-proclaimed "gut-wrenching and roller-coaster" ride that left him exasperated.

Walz watched with joy as the House early last week approved a raft of bills dealing with veteran's health care, a subject close to his heart as a former command sergeant major in the Army National Guard. One of the bills, dealing with traumatic brain injuries, the most prevalent injury suffered by troops who survive road-side bombs, was written partially by Walz.

One of the 42 freshmen who propelled Democrats into the majority, Walz was also a sought-after commodity by his party's superstars: Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) summoned him to a Senate press conference to tout legislation pushing for higher pay for the military.

But all that headiness was drowned out by voting for the $120 billion supplemental spending bill, including supporting roughly $100 billion of funding for President Bush to orchestrate the war in Iraq.

"Now we're stuck with this absolute devil's deal," he told Capitol Briefing moments before voting with 194 Republicans and 85 other Democrats for the Iraq funds.

Walz was propelled into the House over an entrenched GOP incumbent on a strong anti-war message. Prior to Thursday's vote he had been on the anti-Bush side of every Iraq vote this year, even voting earlier this month for a complete withdrawal of troops within six months.

But, after Bush vetoed the bill including withdrawal deadlines, Walz came to the conclusion that denying funds for the mission would endanger the soldiers on the battlefields in Iraq, some of whom he served with as recently as 2005. "I've got disappointed supporters," Walz confessed. "[But] it was the right thing to do. I think it's a reflection of the reality."

And it's a reflection that faced many freshmen Democrats, as almost 20 joined him in supporting the Iraq funding even though they had all previously voted for a supplemental spending bill with strict withdrawal deadlines.

Walz hopes to make this Memorial Day recess period, which is always heavy on military symbolism, also about energy, the upcoming farm bill and transportation funding. But he knows Iraq is the centerpiece of what's happening: "It's overshadowing some great things we're doing."

He published an op-ed in two of his local papers Saturday explaining his decision to vote for the troop funding, and, according to staff, the first question he faced at an American Legion hall on Memorial Day was about the vote.

His district runs almost 300 miles wide, touching Wisconsin on the east and South Dakota to the west, with Iowa running along the southern border. This is certainly more conservative terrain than the Twin Cities but it's by no means a strong "red" district, with Bush having received 51 percent there in 2004.

Republicans believe that they can tie House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Walz. According to a new analysis of votes, Walz has voted with the majority of his Democratic caucus almost 97 percent of the time in the more than 400 votes he's cast since early January.

"He's sacrificing the interests of his district for the interest of his Democratic leadership," said Ken Spain, spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee. The GOP committee is running radio ads in Walz's district now criticizing his support of Democratic leadership and has created a web site devoted to Walz and 20 other freshmen.

But Democrats believe Walz fits the district - he was a high school teacher who counts his congressional communications director as a former student - and he opened three offices across his district for constituent services by early January.

Walz admits his biggest weakness is fund-raising. He pays little attention to it and instead plows into his work on the Veterans Affairs, Agriculture and Transportation and Infrastructure committees. "They tell me I spend too much time being a congressman," Walz said, referring to party leaders such as Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.). "I do it. I'll be fine. I don't particularly like it."

He raised $187,000 and reported $155,000 cash on hand on March 31, far off the leadership's goal of stockpiling at least $650,000 in his account by June 30. "I'm optimistic -- not that optimistic," he said of the political benchmark.

His emotional highlight came on swearing-in day five months ago as his 6-year-old daughter, Hope, was one of the children that dashed up to the rostrum at the invitation of the new speaker. His roommate is Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), the 32-year-old freshmen who served in Baghdad as a captain with a JAG unit.

But sometimes even roommates are divided on Iraq. Murphy voted against the Iraq funding bill that Walz supported.

Just before the roll was called Thursday, Walz said it was his toughest moment in Congress. "This moment right now," he said, still explaining a vote he didn't want to cast. "I'm willing to make the hard decisions. I'll try to take care of the soldiers."

By Paul Kane  |  May 30, 2007; 11:50 AM ET
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