By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 31, 2007
LAS VEGAS -- Saying the coming weeks will be "one of the last opportunities" to alter the course of the war, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said he is now willing to compromise with Republicans to find ways to limit troop deployments in Iraq.
Reid acknowledged that his previous firm demand for a spring withdrawal deadline had become an obstacle for a small but growing number of Republicans who have said they want to end the war but have been unwilling to set a timeline.
"I don't think we have to think that our way is the only way," Reid said of specific dates during an interview in his office here. "I'm not saying, 'Republicans, do what we want to do.' Just give me something that you think you would like to do, that accomplishes some or all of what I want to do."
Reid's unwavering stance this summer earned him critics who said he was playing politics by refusing to bargain with antiwar Republicans. In the interview, he said that his goal remains an immediate return of U.S. troops but that now is the time to work with the GOP. He cited bringing up legislation after Labor Day that would require troops to have more home leave, forcing military leaders to reduce troop levels, a measure that has drawn some Republican support.
During the week of Sept. 10, Congress will hear a progress report on the war from the U.S. commander in Baghdad, Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan C. Crocker. After those hearings and a formal report from President Bush, lawmakers will renew their debate on the war.
That debate screeched to a halt in late July after the most poisonous confrontation since Democrats took control of Congress eight months ago. Reid convened an all-night session that infuriated Republicans, who blocked a Democratic withdrawal measure. Despite antiwar stirrings within the GOP, just four Republican senators broke ranks on the vote, and several chastised Reid, saying he wasted the Senate's time on a publicity stunt.
Reid then dropped the war debate, hoping to highlight Republican obstructionism. But the delay has provided the administration with breathing room to build its case that Bush's strategy is working. Petraeus is expected to report to Congress next month that there are some signs of progress in Iraq and that a precipitous U.S. withdrawal could be disastrous.
"I don't think we had any choice," Reid said, shrugging off past skirmishes. "I have no regrets about the way that I have tried to marshal the troops. It's been hard to keep all the Democrats together, but we've done that."
But looking forward, Reid said he will encourage new coalitions to develop, with a more bipartisan hue. "There is no reason that this be Democrat versus Republican," he said. But his GOP colleagues, he added, must be willing to stand up to Bush, as few have so far. "All these people saying September is here, September is the time -- they're going to have belly up to the bar and decide how to vote," Reid said.
One measure Reid said he will seek to resurrect would tighten rules on the use of troops by requiring soldiers' leave times to be at least as long as their most recent deployment. The proposal, offered by Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), would not set withdrawal terms, but it could effectively limit U.S. force levels. A vote of 56 to 41 in favor of the measure on July 11 fell four votes short of the 60 needed to overcome a GOP filibuster, but it had seven Republican supporters.
Another approach, left hanging when Reid terminated the July debate, was a proposal from Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to turn the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group into official U.S. policy. The study group's proposals, offered in December and mostly ignored by the White House, include setting the stage for a new regional diplomatic initiative and transitioning U.S. combat forces to more specific roles, including training and counterterrorism. If progress isn't made, troops would begin withdrawing early next year.
The Salazar-Alexander bill has attracted 12 additional co-sponsors, half of them Republicans. Reid said he is willing to listen to their pitch, but he remains concerned that the language is too cautious and may now be outdated.
Alexander said he and Salazar are discussing tweaks to reflect changing circumstances. But he believes that the study group report contains "the seeds for consensus," and he said of his proposal, "It's not withdrawal with a deadline, but it's finishing the job."
"I respect that some Democrats want us out tomorrow, and some Republicans want a victory like Germany and Japan, but that's not going to happen," Alexander said. But he warned that, given the onset of the 2008 presidential campaign season, "September may be our last best chance" to force a legislative solution.
Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), who works closely with Reid on Iraq policy, noted that with each new phase of the Iraq debate, "we've picked up more votes." But to meet the Democrats' ultimate goal of ending the war, he added, "There's only so many things you can do."
The antiwar community also is warily eyeing the clock, frustrated that Bush remains firmly in control of Iraq policy. Eli Pariser, executive director of MoveOn.org Political Action, called the all-night session in July "a good step in the right direction" but said of Reid's efforts to force Republicans to concede, "We'd like to see it go further."
The Senate has proved to be punishing terrain. Although Democrats technically control the chamber 51 to 49, Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) has been absent all year for health reasons, and Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), an independent who is a member of the Democratic caucus, votes with Bush on Iraq. Given that controversial Senate bills require 60 votes to pass, Reid starts out 11 votes short.
Reid's friends see the wear on him. "I think he has agonized over this," said Rep. Shelley Berkley (D-Nev.), who has known Reid since she was a teenager. "I can see it. It weighs on his shoulders. But he's approaching this for all the right reasons, and I admire him for that."
Few Democrats have come as full circle on the war as Reid himself. On Oct. 10, 2002, as Senate minority whip, Reid became the most senior Democrat to endorse the war resolution. "They gave us the information, and I accepted what they told us," he explains.
It took a while to let go. "I did not wake up some morning and say, 'I oppose the war.' It built very slowly," Reid said.
One glimmer came when Frederick E. Pokorney Jr., a 31-year-old Marine from Tonopah, died on March 23, 2003; he was the first Nevada resident to be killed in Iraq. Reid called Wade Lieseke, the man Pokorney considered his father, to offer condolences. When Lieseke told him, "This war is worthless," he was taken aback. "I'm not sure that's right," he thought to himself. But with every new call, Reid later said, "I reflected back on that."
Reid also recalled his first visit to Walter Reed Army Medical Center. "I say to this young man -- he's missing part of one leg and the other one's up in a sling, and I try to be nice -- 'I know we need to go get you more armor.' " The young man responded: "We don't need more armor. We need to get out of there." That comment lingered, too.
This March, the senator returned to Walter Reed, where he met a young Ohio man recovering from a bomb attack that had "vaporized" his friend. A 22-year Army veteran told Reid she had lost her memory because she'd been knocked unconscious so many times. Reid left the hospital and headed to the Senate floor, where he delivered a passionate speech in favor of Webb's bid for troop-deployment limits.
"That did it for me," Reid said of the Walter Reed visit. "I never looked back. I'm not really proud of the fact that it's taken me so long to realize how bad it's been, but I'm there."