Democrats Push Toward Middle On Iraq Policy

By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, September 13, 2007

Democratic leaders in Congress have decided to shift course and pursue modest bipartisan measures to alter U.S. military strategy in Iraq, hoping to use incremental changes instead of aggressive legislation to break the grip Republicans have held over the direction of war policy.

Standing against them will be President Bush, who intends to use a prime-time address tonight to try to ease concerns that his Iraq strategy will lead to an open-ended military commitment.

Both efforts share a single target: a handful of Republican moderates in the Senate whose votes the Democrats need to overcome the threat of a GOP filibuster. Should enough Republican moderates sign on to a compromise measure, Democrats could finally pass legislation aimed at changing direction of the war.

"We're reaching out to the Republicans to allow them to fulfill their word," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) said yesterday. "A number of them are quoted significantly saying that come September that there would have to be a change of the course in the war in Iraq."

After two days of congressional testimony from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker, the battle lines in the House and Senate over the war have begun to shift, with moderate members of both parties building new momentum behind initiatives that would force the White House to make modest changes to the military mission but not require a substantial drawdown of troops by a set date. Democratic leaders, who have blessed the new approach, now believe that passing compromise legislation is the first step toward more ambitious measures aimed at ending the war, although that tactic is likely to result in stiff opposition from Democratic activists who want a rapid troop withdrawal.

Just months ago, Democratic leaders gave short shrift to any bipartisan bills deemed insufficiently strong by their left flank. A Senate measure to institute the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, headed by Republican former secretary of state James A. Baker III and Democratic former Indiana congressman Lee H. Hamilton, never came to a vote after Reid slammed it as "weak tea." And House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) blocked consideration of a bill to force the Bush administration to plan for withdrawals after antiwar Democrats denounced it.

But after months of false starts and dead ends, Democratic leaders are taking a pragmatic turn.

"We want to get something to the president's desk," said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (Md.), chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.

House and Senate Democratic leaders are now working in tandem on legislative efforts, knowing that if Iraq legislation can make it through the Senate, GOP moderates in the House will be more likely to change sides, Van Hollen said.

"If the Senate starts actually passing legislation, that could really change things," agreed Rep. Michael N. Castle (Del.), a GOP moderate who has been working with Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) on a more bipartisan approach to Iraq.

Administration officials are equally aware that congressional Republicans will be the key to the legislative fight, said former White House policy aide Peter Wehner. But White House officials believe the president's hand was strengthened by two days of testimony by Petraeus and Crocker.

"What this is really about at its core is congressional votes about a war policy," Wehner said. "And that policy will go forward as long as Republicans hold -- and that was the first order of business. And they achieved it very well."

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