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Democrats' Struggle to Change Course in Iraq Has Produced Much Debate, Little Action

Sen. Joseph Biden said among Democrats' achievements is that they have
Sen. Joseph Biden said among Democrats' achievements is that they have "made it very difficult for Republicans to continue to hide" their views on Iraq. Biden visited troops in Iraq last week. (By John Moore -- Getty Images)

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By Shailagh Murray and Dan Balz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Monday, September 10, 2007

On the morning of Dec. 18, 2006, the phone lines in the office of incoming Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid suddenly lit up -- a warning signal that the coming debate over Iraq could prove a perilous exercise for congressional Democrats.

Though an official announcement was weeks away, it was already clear that, the election returns notwithstanding, President Bush was preparing to send more troops into Iraq, not getting ready to pull them out. The new Senate leader, asked the day before about his reaction to those reports, sounded mildly receptive. "If . . . it's part of a program to get us out of there as indicated by this time next year, then sure, I'll go along with it," Reid said.

Mobilized by MoveOn.org, one of the antiwar groups that helped the Democrats retake the House and Senate the previous month, liberal war opponents registered their outrage over Reid's conciliatory words.

The Nevada Democrat quickly offered a clarification -- in a posting, fittingly enough, on a liberal Web site. The party's position began to harden into solid opposition, putting the administration on notice that Democrats were determined to try to force a change in Bush's policy. The problem was, no one knew or agreed on just how to go about it. Democrats began their fight against what came to be called the surge with public opinion on their side, but with virtually no real weapons to force Bush to change, given the realities of a 51-49 Senate majority.

In the past eight months, there have been multiple resolutions opposing the troop increase, numerous proposals to establish timetables for withdrawal, plans to repeal the original congressional authorization that gave Bush the power to go to war and even an effort to cut off funds for the conflict. But Democrats have not succeeded in forcing a single, substantial change in the president's policy, and they have watched Congress's approval rating, as measured by the Gallup Poll, slide to the lowest recorded since Gallup began measuring in 1974.

"What we have done is made it very difficult for Republicans to continue to hide on whether they agree with the president or not on Iraq," said Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), describing the political gain Democrats think they have achieved since the beginning of the year. "Whether or not they'll take that final step and actually break by actually overriding a veto, if we ever get to that, or break by supporting very tough language that constricts his movement, remains to be seen."

The next and perhaps final chapter of the war debate this year will begin to play out today as Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commanding general of U.S. forces in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker give a report to the House about the military and political results of the troop buildup. It is not clear what, if anything, will emerge from Congress from that debate, given the acrid partisanship that has surrounded the Iraq battle all year.

In the Senate, the crucible of the debate, many Republicans have grown increasingly skeptical of the president's policy, though they are unwilling to go as far Democrats. And Democratic leaders, determined to end the war on their terms and under intense pressure from their antiwar base, have refused to yield enough ground to accommodate them. Every time an effort failed, Democrats came back with something tougher, until by the August recess, all Congress had produced was another round of war funding, with virtually no strings attached.

In recent weeks, Reid has talked of striking a more conciliatory tone, and he has said that to bring Republicans to the table, Democrats will even reconsider their demand for a fixed end date. But he said he has no regrets about the debate so far. "If we hadn't done something, nothing would have been done," he said. "I think we've done the right thing by pushing out here."

Sen. Gordon Smith (Ore.) is a moderate Republican who split from Bush on Iraq in December. But he has voted for the Democrats' rigid withdrawal terms with a heavy heart.

Like his constituents, Smith yearns for something different and, so far, elusive -- a way out that unites Congress and the country. "I think the people would follow a light at the end of the tunnel," he said, "as long as it's not an oncoming train."

A Debate in Three Arenas

The debate over Iraq has played out in three arenas: the Senate, the House and the presidential campaign.


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