By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, March 10, 2007
A vote on the Democratic-sponsored Iraq resolution expected to hit the Senate floor next week will mark the first time Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) has embraced a legislative deadline for withdrawing from the war-torn nation, a step she has consistently resisted to this point.
The March 31, 2008, date in the text is described as a "goal," but Democratic leaders said the intent is clear: The war's combat phase should end by that date.
"We believe that this is a deadline, in a certain sense, that the vast majority of troops should leave," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) said.
If the distinction seems murky, that is not an accident. In drafting the resolution, Democratic leaders sought to encompass a wide range of views on the war, from those of more cautious lawmakers such as Clinton and Sen. Evan Bayh (Ind.), to those of antiwar liberals such as Sens. Russell Feingold (Wis.) and Barbara Boxer (Calif.).
So far, according to Schumer and others, almost all Democrats are on board, and he predicts some Republicans will eventually sign on. "We believe we're going to get closer and closer and closer" to the 60 votes needed for passage, Schumer said.
But the stakes are higher for some senators than for others. Clinton, the front-runner for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination, has carefully laid out her Iraq views in a series of formal plans and speeches and has repeatedly rejected setting a deadline for withdrawal. Yet when and if she casts her vote, those pronouncements will be somewhat eclipsed by the Senate's binding action. That fact touched off an unusual scramble in which even Senate leadership aides are attempting to characterize Clinton's position as consistent with her previous views.
The shadow of presidential politics fell over the resolution within hours of its release Thursday. Some Democrats tried to play down the role of Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), a 2008 candidate and one of the measure's principal architects. Others noted with amusement that the resolution tracks closely to an Iraq proposal by Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), Clinton's chief rival for the nomination.
Aides to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) unearthed and circulated a June 12, 2006, news release in which he called for combat troops to leave Iraq by the end of last year -- an attempt to show that the 2004 nominee had been far ahead of the curve.
The resolution's key provision calls for President Bush to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces from Iraq no later than four months after the date of enactment, "with the goal of redeploying, by March 31, 2008, all U.S. combat forces from Iraq." A limited number of troops would stay to conduct training, security and counterterrorism operations.
The same goal was set by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in its December report. "It very much is consistent with, and I think reflects, the Iraq Study Group," said Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), one of the resolution's authors. "It has the goal, without a fixed date, for the departure of all of the troops that are not needed for the limited, specified purposes that remain."
Bayh, who has also opposed a withdrawal deadline, said he views the date as "flexible, allowing for unforeseen contingencies." But antiwar senators said they are surprised and pleased by the resolution's teeth. "This is a significant, major step to changing this from a mistaken war to the very limited purposes that have to continue to get us out of Iraq," said Feingold, who wants troops to return home immediately.
Clinton signed on as a co-sponsor when the final language was released Thursday. Although she differed with some Iraq Study Group recommendations, she did not dispute its withdrawal goal. The Senate resolution is also consistent with Clinton's view that a phased withdrawal should start as soon as possible and that Bush should end the war before he leaves office.
But the senator, along with about half of her Democratic colleagues, has carefully avoided specifying a date for finishing the job. "I don't think you should ever telegraph your intentions to the enemy so they can await you," she said in September 2005. She rejected a "date certain" again in June 2006, and again in January: "I'm not going to support a specific deadline."
Clinton does support capping U.S. troops in Iraq at the number before the current buildup. She advocates a speedier timetable for beginning a troop withdrawal -- within 90 days, as opposed to 120 days in the new Senate plan.
Sensitive to Clinton's rhetorical quandary, Senate leadership aides circulated the record of a June 2006 roll-call vote, showing she had supported a similar nonbinding Democratic resolution. The measure urged Bush to "expedite the transition of United States forces in Iraq to a limited presence and mission" and to begin a phased withdrawal by the end of last year. The resolution did not specify a deadline, either as a goal or otherwise.
"Senator Clinton is firmly behind Democratic efforts to stop the president's escalation of troops into Iraq, to begin the phased redeployment of our troops out of Iraq and back home, and she fully supports this latest proposal to reverse his failed policy and end this war as soon as possible," her spokesman Philippe Reines said.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he expects debate on the bill to begin Wednesday. Reid said he will allow Republicans to consider three of their own Iraq-related provisions, an effort to thwart the procedural objections that GOP leaders used last month to stop a meeker Democratic measure on Iraq from reaching the floor.