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Senate Floor To Be a Stage For '08 Race

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By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 7, 2007

The four Senate Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination will take their campaigns to the chamber's floor next week, pushing new limits on U.S. involvement in Iraq in an attempt to burnish their antiwar credentials.

Next week, the Senate turns to the annual Defense Department authorization bill, legislation that is becoming a magnet for Iraq-related amendments as Democrats press ahead in their quest to force President Bush to change course and begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Among those hoping to reshape the bill are a who's who of the 2008 field -- Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.).

For months, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) discouraged his caucus's 2008 candidates from taking prominent roles on Iraq, in hopes of inoculating his party from charges of politicizing the war.

But Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the Democratic leader has given up on that proposition, a decision that was probably inevitable as the party's base pushes aggressively for immediate withdrawal. Reid has assured all antiwar Democrats drafting Iraq amendments that they will get a vote during the defense policy debate -- a pledge that amounts to free airtime for the four presidential candidates.

Clinton, teaming up with Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), is lobbying other senators to support a measure that would essentially revoke the authority Congress gave Bush in 2002 to wage the war. Obama is drafting amendments to improve mental health services for veterans and to beef up oversight of military contractors. Dodd's amendment would begin troop withdrawals within a month and terminate funding for combat operations next spring.

Biden will seek additional support for mine-resistant vehicles and will pitch in to help Democratic leaders build consensus on troop-withdrawal language -- an effort likely to become the debate's focal point.

The tit-for-tat between the Democratic presidential candidates flared up during the Iraq funding debate in May, when the four senators sought to outdo one another in their opposition to the war. Clinton and Obama, both of whom had previously resisted firm withdrawal deadlines, wound up embracing a cutoff of funding for the war next year, the toughest, most controversial proposal to reach the floor.

In that last major floor debate on the issue, Democrats were handed a substantial setback in their drive to curtail the president's ability to wage the war on his terms: They failed to override a veto of an emergency war spending bill, eventually sending it back to Bush's desk with few restrictions.

Clinton's deauthorization plan has raised a few eyebrows. The idea was considered by Democratic leaders early in the spring, after Biden and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) floated it, but it was set aside as too contentious. Yet for Clinton, whose support for the 2002 authorization remains a point of criticism for many Democratic primary voters, the proposal is tantamount to a legislative reversal.

"It is time for the President to make the case to the Congress and the American people for the U.S. military's changed mission in Iraq," Clinton and Byrd said in a letter to Democratic senators. "The American public and our troops in the field are entitled to a new debate about this war."

The Senate has traditionally been a stumbling block for presidential ambitions. But with Iraq on the table, it is providing a prime opportunity for Democrats to showcase their leadership skills and foreign-policy views.

"The war has been absolutely huge for them," said Barry C. Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of a 2002 study that mapped the miserable track record of U.S. senators as presidential candidates.

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