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Petraeus Open to Pullout of 1 Brigade

With Republican leaders on the defensive and Democratic leaders unsure of the legislative path forward, moderates sense that their moment has arrived.

"The House Democratic leadership, in using the Iraq issue in the fall election, imposed on themselves a set of impossible tasks, by going way beyond what they could reasonably achieve under the Constitution, by creating the illusion that they could pull out quickly," said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.). "I think this creates an opportunity to step back from their confrontational stance and for Republicans to really reassess where this mission goes from here."

Several groups of centrists -- led by Reps. Nick Lampson (D-Tex.), Steve Israel (D-N.Y.), John Tanner (D-Tenn.), Marcy Kaptur (D-Ohio), Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.), Michael N. Castle (R-Del.) and English -- have begun quiet discussions about banding together to force the leaders of both parties out of their trenches.

"In both parties, there is a push that comes out of a pure desire for resolution," Kaptur said. "The question is how you get there. It's going to require a bipartisan effort."

Just before the August recess, more than a dozen lawmakers met to forge a new, centrist push. A major meeting is planned in the next two weeks to bring disparate, ad hoc groups together into a cohesive caucus that would be large enough to force showdowns, even if it meant using parliamentary tactics to embarrass the party leaders into concessions.

"If you had a group of people who were centrists and who were agreeing on issues strongly enough, something like that might practically happen," Lampson said, "but I don't think that's the goal."

If the group could hold firm, Pelosi would face a choice of governing with a centrist coalition from both parties or dealing with a full-scale revolt. But the liberal wing is not about to give in. Recent signals from Reid and other leaders that they might drop their demands for withdrawal timelines led some Democrats to begin firing back yesterday.

"Rather than picking up votes, by removing the deadline to get our troops out of Iraq, you have lost this Democrat's vote," said Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.), a presidential candidate. "It is clear that half measures are not going to stop this president or end this war."

The issue that prompted the push was a bill, sponsored by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii), Tanner and English, that would give the Bush administration 60 days to apprise Congress of Pentagon planning for troop redeployments in Iraq. The bill was yanked from consideration in the House last month after a standoff between moderate Democrats and antiwar activists who opposed it. "They allowed a few people in the progressive caucus to have veto power over everything, and that can't be sustained," Abercrombie said.

In a letter to Pelosi and Hoyer, 10 Democrats and three Republicans this week demanded consideration of the Abercrombie-Tanner-English bill, saying: "Congress needs to make clear to the American people that we can and will work across the partisan divide on issues of such profound importance."

Pelosi said this week that the House will now bring the bill to a vote, but that it will be considered with another Iraq measure. That measure is likely to be designed to placate an antiwar wing that believes the Abercrombie measure will give Republicans a chance to tell their constituents that they are standing up to the president but will actually change nothing.

Many Democrats remain convinced that they should force Republicans to their side, not compromise on an issue as fundamental as ending the U.S. involvement in Iraq. "I have no problem with talking to moderates about alternatives, just as long as we're not just giving them cover and getting an agreement for the sake of agreement," McGovern said. "I'm out of patience."

Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.

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