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."
With the president holding the veto pen, White House officials are confident they will retain the necessary votes.
"I don't think Congress is going to pull the plug," said White House press secretary Tony Snow.
At least 10 Senate Republicans have openly questioned the president's Iraq strategy, even as they remain reluctant to embrace Democratic legislation to change it. Republican war critics said they are detecting a shift -- albeit a slight one -- toward outright dissent, as their colleagues digest the Petraeus and Crocker testimony and the prospect of a maintaining a large U.S. military presence in Iraq for the near future.
"I'm not alone in my feelings, but so far I'm fairly isolated in terms of manifesting them with a vote," said Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), one of the party's few on-the-record war dissenters.
Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), who has been virtually silent on the war this year, startled her colleagues on the Armed Services Committee on Tuesday with her criticism of the administration and her call for "a policy that the majority of Americans will support" on Iraq.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.) said Dole's comments reveal a building frustration among otherwise loyal Republicans about an undefined commitment in Iraq -- and its potential political consequences.
"I think Republicans, like a lot of Americans, are worried about how things are going. They're hearing mixed results. They don't believe everything that comes out of the State Department or the Pentagon or the White House. They're thinking critically," Sessions said.
Having lost control of Congress last November, the GOP faces potentially deeper losses in 2008. The party must defend 21 Senate seats, including at least seven in swing states where the war is unpopular, such as Minnesota, New Hampshire and Maine.
"It just is not going to work," Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said of Republican solidarity. "I wouldn't want to be the party that says we're going to have 130,000 troops from July on."
The Senate next week will resume consideration of its annual defense policy bill, which Reid abruptly pulled from the floor in July after he failed to add an amendment that would have imposed timetables for the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq. This time, however, Democratic leaders will focus on four to six amendments that they believe could get the 60 votes needed for passage.
One of the first will be a revised version of legislation that would ensure that troops returning from Iraq are granted a home leave at least as long as their last deployment before returning to the battlefield, said Sen. James Webb (D-Va.), the amendment's author.
The amendment garnered 56 votes in July, and with Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) back on the job after suffering a brain hemorrhage, the measure should be within three votes of victory. Webb said yesterday that he was in talks with at least two more Republicans, Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and George V. Voinovich (Ohio).
Another amendment in bipartisan talks is a revised withdrawal measure that would probably include timelines to start troop drawdowns but would leave a final pullout date as a goal rather than a deadline.
And an amendment by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) to mandate a change of strategy in Iraq is gaining currency with Democratic leaders, according to leadership aides. The amendment would order missions to shift immediately from combat to counterterrorism, border security and the training of Iraqi security forces. It would not mandate troop withdrawals, but Collins said such withdrawals would be inevitable, because the remaining missions could be accomplished with 50,000 to 60,000 troops.
Democratic House leaders will watch the fate of each of those measures intently. But they also must watch a brewing revolt by their most ardent opponents of the Iraq war, who have vowed to fight any measure they do not believe will bring the war to a quicker end.
"Doing it step by step is one thing, but when you have such a short time to do it, you only have time for a few steps," said Rep. Maurice D. Hinchey (N.Y.). "You have to take big ones, not little ones."
MoveOn.org, a liberal activist group that has spent months pressuring Republicans to turn against the war, is now threatening to turn on Democrats who temper their positions.
But moderate Democrats are feeling emboldened, after nearly nine months of taking their marching orders from the more liberal wing of the party. Rep. Neil Abercrombie (Hawaii), who is pushing a more bipartisan approach, said the antiwar wing has badly overplayed its hand. Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), an uncompromising antiwar lawmaker, infuriated colleagues when she encouraged antiwar activists to mount primary challenges against Democrats deemed insufficiently bold.
MoveOn.org provided Republicans a life raft when it ran a full-page newspaper advertisement Monday taunting Petraeus as "General Betray Us." Ever since, Republicans have spent far more time condemning the ad than defending the war.
Tanner said he is ready for a fight as he pushes a bipartisan bill that would give the White House 60 days to present Congress with a withdrawal plan. Antiwar activists say the bill will succeed only in giving Republican moderates political cover, easing the pressure on them to embrace stronger measures.
"When these soldiers, sailors and airmen are buried, they're not buried as Republicans or Democrats," Tanner said. "I care a hell of a lot more about them than I do about partisan politics."
Staff writer Michael Abramowitz contributed to this report.