By Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, June 21, 2006
While congressional Republicans continued to show almost unanimous support for President Bush's handling of the Iraq war, Democrats struggled for consensus yesterday, reflecting what some of them called the public's mixed feelings about the three-year-old conflict.
After a sometimes heated closed-door meeting, Senate Democrats postponed action on two proposals related to drawdowns of U.S. troops in Iraq. One would direct Bush to bring nearly all the troops home within 13 months. The other would urge him to begin an unspecified withdrawal by the end of this year.
Debate and votes on the two measures are likely to be held today and tomorrow, with Senate Republicans happy to clear the way for Democrats to showcase their divisions. Senators predicted that few, if any, Republicans will embrace the Democrats' proposals, mirroring the nearly unanimous support House Republicans displayed last week for Bush's policies.
The Senate Democrats' weekly closed luncheon was unusually spirited, participants said, because the discussion focused entirely on Iraq, particularly Sen. John F. Kerry's proposal to order Bush to remove the troops by July 31, 2007. When the 90-minute session ended, only a handful of Democrats appeared to be leaning toward supporting Kerry (Mass.), but he vowed to push the amendment today.
Some Democrats said their party's divisions are hardly surprising in light of polls showing that many Americans oppose the war but do not want to leave Iraq amid such chaos that it is a breeding ground for terrorism.
"The American people have mixed feelings about Iraq -- where we are, where we're going there," Sen. Mark Pryor (Ark.) said as he left the meeting. "The American people really understand that it's a complicated situation."
The Democrats' chief alternative to Kerry's proposal is sponsored by Sens. Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Jack Reed (R.I.). Their nonbinding resolution urges Bush to begin "redeploying" troops from Iraq by Dec. 31, but it sets no deadline for a full withdrawal.
Kerry, Levin and Reed say Iraqis must understand that the U.S. military presence in their country is not open-ended and that Iraqis therefore should step up efforts to train and equip their police and army. Backers of the Levin-Reed plan say that a firm deadline for a full withdrawal could imperil Iraq's government if its security forces are not ready to impose stability.
Sen. Patrick J. Leahy (D-Vt.) said yesterday that he would support both measures. "This war has been a costly, tragic mistake that has not made us more secure," he said. "We need to send the signal to all concerned that it's time for Iraqis to take responsibility for running Iraq and for our troops to come home."
GOP leaders took obvious pleasure in the Democrats' disarray, issuing a stream of press releases with headlines such as, "Democrats Divided On The Meaning Of Their Own Amendments."
Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), speaking of the Democratic proposals, said: "The Iraqi people want and need us to help them. If we don't -- if we break our promise and cut and run as some would have us do -- the implications could be catastrophic."
Some Democrats, however, said congressional Republicans are misreading the public and the situation in Iraq. "Republicans are unified with Bush in an absolutely disastrous, calamitous policy," Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) said in an interview. Biden, who has traveled to Iraq several times, said he did not support Kerry's proposal but agrees that the United States must send Baghdad a strong signal to purge sectarian killers from its security forces and bring more Sunnis into the circles of power.
Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) acknowledged his party's divisions over Iraq but played down the significance. "One thing Democrats agree on is this war has taken too long, it's too expensive and costs too many lives and too many soldiers injured," he told reporters. "We all agree there should be a change in the course of the war. We all agree that there should be redeployment starting sooner rather than later."