By Charles Babington and Jim VandeHei
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, August 1, 2006; A01
After months of struggling to forge a unified stance on the Iraq war, top congressional Democrats joined voices yesterday to call on President Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. troops by the end of the year and to "transition to a more limited mission" in the war-torn nation.
With the midterm elections three months away, and Democrats seeing public discontent over Iraq as their best chance for retaking the House or Senate, a dozen key lawmakers told Bush in a letter: "In the interests of American national security, our troops and our taxpayers, the open-ended commitment in Iraq that you have embraced cannot and should not be sustained. . . . We need to take a new direction."
The 12 Democrats, led by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) and Senate Minority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.), include liberals and centrists who have differed over Iraq in the past. The signers included the top Democrats on the House and Senate committees dealing with armed services, foreign relations, intelligence and military spending. Their action puts party leaders on the same page, and it helps clarify the Nov. 7 election as a choice between a party seeking a timeline for withdrawing troops from an unpopular war and a party resisting any such timetable.
For all its passion, the letter has more significance as a political statement than as a policy alternative. Most Democrats previously have embraced the general idea of beginning a troop drawdown this year, and the letter adds no specifics about how many troops should be withdrawn or how rapidly.
Senior Republicans quickly denounced the document as defeatist.
But this rebuttal came as a number of GOP lawmakers are joining Democrats in criticizing the war's progress.
Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) last week called Iraq "an absolute replay of Vietnam." Rep. Gil Gutknecht (R-Minn.) recently returned from Iraq with a call for U.S. troops to pull out. In Democratic primaries in several states, meanwhile, voters are venting their unhappiness.
Pelosi said the impetus for the letter was growing concern that Iraq is dangerously draining the military's readiness and that Bush's plan to shift more U.S. troops to Baghdad is ill advised. "We're united around a proposal for responsible redeployment, and we want it to begin before December," Pelosi said in a telephone interview from Boston.
"It's not about candidates," she said. "It's about our young people in harm's way."
Pelosi's spokeswoman, Jennifer Crider, acknowledged that "a lot of our candidates are set on wanting a new course" in Iraq. She added that the letter does not represent an official party platform, leaving candidates free to act on the basis of "what works in their district and what are their own beliefs."
Also signing the letter was Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), the ranking Democrat on the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense. He and Pelosi caused waves within their party last year when they called for U.S. troop withdrawals to begin promptly. Most Democrats then opposed the idea, and the House and Senate overwhelmingly rejected it.
Among those who rejected a prompt withdrawal last fall but signed on to the letter yesterday were centrists such as Reid and House Minority Whip Steny H. Hoyer (Md.). By June, most congressional Democrats were expressing support for beginning a troop drawdown this year. Many, however, remain wary of imposing a binding deadline on the Bush administration, and the letter does not endorse that.
A senior Democratic strategist, who agreed to discuss electoral calculations only anonymously, said party leaders concluded that voters want a clear choice between backers of a timeline for beginning a pullout and the GOP's no-timetable position.
"This offers a pretty clear contrast" for the next few months, the strategist said, and Reid and others plan a series of events to drive home the point. Polling data and focus groups suggest that Democratic candidates can embrace the letter's message without falling victim to familiar Republican claims of being soft on national security, the strategist said, because setbacks in Iraq have eroded the GOP's traditional advantage on that issue.
But the accord hardly heals continued divisions among Democratic politicians and voters. In Connecticut, for example, Joseph I. Lieberman -- who was one of only six Senate Democrats to vote against a June resolution calling for a troop drawdown to start this year -- is battling an antiwar challenger who is trying to deny him the party's nomination for a fourth term.
Republican National Committee Chairman Ken Mehlman said yesterday's letter "underscores the critical choice facing the American people in November." At a time of "jihadist attacks on civilians in Baghdad, Mumbai and northern Israel," he added, "Democrat leaders propose to cut and run from the central front in the war on terror. Waving a white flag in Iraq may appeal to the Net roots, but it will embolden the enemy, encourage more terrorism and make America less secure."
The Democrats' letter to Bush said: "Despite the latest evidence that your Administration lacks a coherent strategy to stabilize Iraq and achieve victory, there has been virtually no diplomatic effort to resolve sectarian differences, no regional effort to establish a broader security framework, and no attempt to revive a struggling reconstruction effort. Instead, we learned of your plans to redeploy an additional 5,000 U.S. troops into an urban war zone in Baghdad."
In June, the Senate voted 86 to 13 to reject a proposal by John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) that would have ordered Bush to bring most of the troops home within 13 months. Another Democratic measure -- a nonbinding call on Bush to begin a troop drawdown by December -- failed 60 to 39 but had the backing of most Democrats.
The House earlier had voted 256 to 153 to back Bush's Iraq policies. Forty-two Democrats joined a virtually united GOP to declare that the United States must complete "the mission to create a sovereign, free, secure and united Iraq" without setting "an arbitrary date for the withdrawal."