By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, March 6, 2007
Senior House Democrats, seeking to placate members of their party from Republican-leaning districts, are pushing a plan that would place restrictions on President Bush's ability to wage the war in Iraq but would allow him to waive them if he publicly justifies his position.
Under the proposal, Bush would also have to set a date to begin troop withdrawals if the Iraqi government fails to meet benchmarks aimed at stabilizing the country that the president laid out in January.
The plan is an attempt to bridge the differences between anti-war Democrats, led by Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), who have wanted to devise standards of troop readiness strict enough to force Bush to delay some deployments and bring some troops home, and Democrats wary of seeming to place restrictions on the president's role as commander in chief.
The legislative jujitsu in the backrooms of Capitol Hill underscores the difficulties the Democrats face in confronting the issue that helped them regain control of Congress -- Iraq. Democrats passed a resolution in February opposing Bush's deployment of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, but Murtha's proposal to go a step further by restricting deployment to troops deemed to be adequately trained and equipped elicited a fierce response from Republicans, while also dividing the Democratic caucus.
The new plan would demand that Bush certify that combat troops meet the military's own standards of readiness, which are routinely ignored. The president could then waive such certifications if doing so is in "the national interest."
Democrats hope the waiver and benchmark proposals, whose details were confirmed by aides and senior Democrats close to the House Appropriations Committee and leadership, will keep the policymaking responsibilities on Bush. That should allow the committee to move forward next week with a $100 billion war spending bill.
"They're going to end up where they should have started a long time ago: You set readiness requirements, time-in-country requirements, time-in-rotation requirements as policy, then grant the president waivers and demand why it's so important for him to violate these principles," said a senior Democrat close to the Appropriations Committee. "It's all part of military regulations now. You have to elevate that to the policy of the country."
But any dilution of Murtha's original proposal is likely to infuriate the antiwar wing of the party, which wants dramatic action now. After a conference call yesterday, antiwar and labor groups all but gave up on Murtha's approach, concluding they could only support a war-funding "supplemental" bill if it contains a deadline for withdrawing troops.
Participants -- including the Service Employees International Union, MoveOn.org, Win Without War and the Iraq veterans group VoteVets -- insisted there would be more support for a straightforward approach to ending the war than the roundabout efforts Murtha champions.
"A timeline will make a vote for the supplemental a vote to end the war and a vote against it a vote for war without end," said Tom Matzzie, Washington director of MoveOn.org Political Action.
That conclusion mirrors the judgment of even some of the Democrats the proposal was meant to attract. One conservative lawmaker, who spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of angering Democratic leaders, dismissed Murtha's approach as "too cute by half."
Democratic leaders are not likely to embrace a straightforward legislative timetable. But they hope the adoption of the benchmarks will win over antiwar groups.
Under those benchmarks, which Bush laid out in a speech to the nation Jan. 10, the Iraqi government would have to take responsibility for security in all of Iraq's provinces by November, and adopt and implement oil-revenue-sharing legislation. The government would also have to spend $10 billion of Iraq's money on job-creating reconstruction and infrastructure projects; hold new provincial elections this year; liberalize laws that purged Baath Party members from the government; and establish a fairer process for amending the Iraqi constitution.
If those benchmarks are not met, Democrats would demand Bush submit to Congress a timetable for withdrawing troops, leadership aides said. The idea is to force Bush to abide by his own promises but to make sure he remains responsible for conducting and ending the war.
In the Senate, Democratic leaders are drafting a resolution that would drastically narrow the scope of the military mission in Iraq to that of a support role, with the emphasis on counterterrorism activities. The effort is expected to last most of the week, with debate starting on the Senate floor as early as next week.
But unlike last month, when nonbinding language expressing opposition to Bush's troop increase plan was blocked by GOP procedural objections, Democrats this time intend to give Republicans broad latitude to offer their own Iraq-related measures. If Republicans go along, the result could be a remarkably robust and wide-open debate -- but nothing of consequence is likely to pass.
Staff writers Shailagh Murray and Lyndsey Layton contributed to this report.