For Democrats, a Delicate Balance on Iraq

By Charles Babington and Jonathan Weisman
Tuesday, June 20, 2006

Debate over Iraq will dominate the Senate this week, with Democrats scrambling to find a Goldilocks solution: not too hot on withdrawing U.S. troops quickly, but not so cold as to alienate large numbers of Democratic voters furious about the war and eager to bring the Americans home.

Four Democratic senators yesterday introduced a resolution intended to strike a just-right balance and to serve as an alternative to Sen. John F. Kerry's push for a hard deadline for a troop withdrawal. Their nonbinding "sense of the Senate" resolution would call on President Bush to begin a "phased redeployment" of U.S. troops by the end of this year. But it does not specify how quickly the drawdown should proceed or when it should be completed.

"This amendment is not cut-and-run," said Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who co-sponsored the measure with Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.). "This is not about a date certain" for a withdrawal, he said, but it is intended to spur the Iraqi government to prepare its army and police for self-sufficiency. Also endorsing the measure, to be offered as an amendment to the 2007 defense authorization bill, were Democrats Dianne Feinstein (Calif.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.).

Democrats said they hope that most of their party's senators -- and perhaps some Republicans -- will back the Levin-Reed amendment. Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) will support it, his office said.

But liberals and antiwar activists will lean toward an alternative amendment offered by Democrats Kerry (Mass.), Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.). It would direct the administration to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by July 1, 2007. The only personnel allowed to remain beyond that date would be those "essential to completing the mission of standing up Iraqi security forces, conducting targeted counter-terrorist operations and protecting U.S. personnel and facilities."

Kerry, the party's 2004 presidential nominee, previously proposed bringing the troops home by the end of this year. Several colleagues urged him to reconsider, saying Republicans would portray Democrats during campaigning for the November elections as soft on terrorism and national security. Kerry agreed to extend the deadline by seven months, but he still calls for a firm date for most troops to be out.

"With the administration's failure to offer a coherent or effective strategy in Iraq, it is long past time for Congress to offer a plan to redeploy our troops so we can give Iraq its best chance at stability, and refocus on al Qaeda and the terrorist networks that threaten the security of all Americans," Kerry and Feingold said in a joint statement.

Levin told reporters yesterday: "We do not feel comfortable with a specific timetable for the redeployment of all of our forces or the pace of that."

Senate GOP aides said they were unsure whether the party's leaders would offer their own Iraq language or be content trying to defeat the Levin-Reed and Kerry-Feingold amendments.

The Senate jockeying follows last week's House vote, in which 42 Democrats joined 214 Republicans in backing a nonbinding measure rejecting "an arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment" of U.S. troops from Iraq.

Between debates on matters military, the Senate may also get a chance to vote to raise the minimum wage for the first time since 1997. Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) introduced an amendment yesterday that would lift the minimum wage from $5.15 to $7.25, calling congressional action "a moral issue."

The House was to act on the minimum wage as well this week, after Democrats attached a wage increase last week to the annual spending bill that funds labor, health and education programs. But Republican leaders put off consideration of the bill on the House floor, believing the measure could be defeated in an embarrassing procedural debate over the minimum-wage hike and ongoing disputes with House GOP moderates over its funding levels.

"With the minimum wage on there, coupled with level of expenditures in the bill, it was just too heavy a lift," said House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.).

The Senate's passage of a minimum-wage increase in 1997 created so much pressure on House Republicans in industrial districts in the Northeast and Midwest that GOP leaders were forced to bring the issue to the floor. Democrats are hoping to re-create that political dynamic.

But first they have to clear the Senate. Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.) used a procedural move yesterday to ensure that before any vote on the minimum wage, the Senate must vote on a Republican measure criminalizing the transport of a minor across state lines to get an abortion. That vote could give some swing-state Democrats so much of a headache that the two parties will agree to drop both amendments and go back to defense.

Also on tap is a House vote on Thursday on Bush's line-item-veto proposal. Lawmakers have been unable to stop themselves from approving narrowly tailored "earmarks" that fund home-district pet projects, but Republicans appear eager to let the president stop them.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company