Iraq Debate Previews Presidential Bids

By Shailagh Murray and Charles Babington
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, June 22, 2006

Yesterday's lengthy Senate debate over Iraq offered early hints of the 2008 presidential contest, with some potential candidates calling for a rapid drawdown of U.S. troops, some saying that only the president can decide such issues and others urging a middle ground.

The debate will culminate today with votes on an amendment sponsored by two potential Democratic candidates -- John F. Kerry (Mass.) and Russell Feingold (Wis.) -- and an alternative backed by most party leaders.

The Kerry-Feingold plan would order President Bush to withdraw nearly all U.S. troops from Iraq by July 31, 2007. The alternative, sponsored by two Democrats not weighing White House bids -- Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Jack Reed (R.I.) -- is a nonbinding resolution urging Bush to begin a troop "redeployment" by the end of this year. It does not specify a pace or a completion date.

Republicans criticized both measures and predicted they will fail. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.) has led the attack, accusing Democrats of seeking to abandon Iraq -- where, he argued, "huge progress" had been made in recent months. Frist, who is leaving the Senate in January and is considering a presidential bid, repeatedly called the Democratic amendments "cut-and-run" proposals.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), seen by some as the GOP front-runner, said he strongly opposes both Democratic amendments because they call for "a withdrawal of American troops tied to arbitrary timetables, rather than conditions in-country." He said a phased redeployment of troops beginning this year, as the Levin-Reed approach envisions, would prove to be "a significant step on the road to disaster."

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) said he will support the Levin-Reed measure. The Levin plan, he said, "lays out what must be done, how to do it and, if it's done, the path by which we can leave and leave our interests intact," with Iraqis ready to defend their country and government.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), seen by some as her party's presidential front-runner, also supports Levin's plan but not Kerry's. "I simply do not believe it is a strategy or a solution for the president to continue declaring an open-ended and unconditional commitment, nor do I believe it is a solution or a strategy to set a date certain for withdrawal without regard to the consequences," she said on the Senate floor.

The Levin amendment, Clinton said, would provide "a road map for success that will more quickly and effectively take advantage of Iraqi oil revenues, build up Iraq's infrastructure, foster Iraqi civil society, challenge Iraq's neighbors to do more to ensure stability in Iraq and allow our troops to begin coming home."

Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) took a slap at some of the partisan rhetoric that has marked the debate all week. "The American people want to see serious debate about serious issues from serious leaders," Hagel said. "It should be taken more seriously than to simply retreat into focus-group-tested buzzwords and phrases like 'cut and run.' "

Hagel said he would vote against the Levin amendment because he does not want to "limit the commander-in-chief's options."

Kerry, the Democrats' 2004 presidential nominee, is considering another try in 2008. In an interview yesterday, he rejected claims that his increasingly sharp criticisms of the war are intended to attract party activists bitterly opposed to the conflict. "I've never ever contemplated making any political decision dealing with life-and-death issues," he said. Referring to his service in Vietnam, he said: "I've been in a war. I know what it means to be one of those troops."

Sen. George Allen (R-Va.) called Kerry's amendment a "tuck-tail-and-run approach."

"We must unite as Americans for a renewed commitment for a strategic stand for success," Allen said.

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