By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, September 19, 2007
Unable to garner enough Republican support, Senate Democratic leaders said yesterday that they are abandoning a bipartisan effort to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq by next spring.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said that Democrats had been willing to make the troop withdrawal a "goal" in order to attract GOP support, but it never materialized. Instead, Reid will again push for a firm deadline, this time June 2008, along with a stronger effort at cutting off war funding.
"It's all definite timelines," Reid said.
The Senate will resume the war debate today, and Reid invited Republicans to offer proposals. His spokesman said that several possibilities are being negotiated, although it appeared unlikely they will meet the 60-vote threshold to pass.
In recent weeks, Reid and other Democratic leaders had indicated they were willing to look for compromise with Republicans. Last week, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, reported to Congress that he might be able to begin a small withdrawal later this year but that force levels would still be about the same next summer as they had been before President Bush's January order of an increase of 21,500 combat troops.
"The Senate faces a series of stark choices -- whether to build on the success of the surge and fight for additional gains, or whether to set a date for American surrender in Iraq and suffer thereby the terrible consequences that will ensue," said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential candidate and strong supporter of the war. "As we consider each of the Iraq-related amendments filed on this bill, let us understand the enormous consequences of decisions taken here."
The fight will begin today as the Senate takes up the annual defense policy bill. Two Democratic amendments on Iraq have attracted Republican support.
One that Reid said is promising is from Sen. James Webb (D-Va.). It would extend home stays for troops for periods at least as long as their last combat tours before they can be redeployed. Webb's amendment fell four votes short of the needed 60 when offered in July.
Some Democrats view Webb's amendment as a way to skirt the deadline issue while still effectively limiting combat operations by making fewer troops available. Reid said he has insisted to Republicans that Democrats are simply seeking to protect troops and their families.
"I've tried to explain to them this is no backdoor way to focus on the war in Iraq," Reid said. "It's to replenish and restore -- I keep using those words -- our military."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates has raised objections to Webb's proposal, causing concern among some Republicans and leading one prominent GOP supporter, Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), to suggest that he may back away from it. But in recent days, Webb has consulted with Warner and has tweaked his proposal to address Gates's concerns.
A second amendment with bipartisan backing would endorse the partition of Iraq into three regions. It was offered by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.), a Democratic presidential candidate.
Despite the lack of consensus in Congress, the war in Iraq remains deeply unpopular. A poll released yesterday by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that 54 percent believe U.S. forces should be brought home as soon as possible, a level unchanged since July.
That view is affecting the perception of even veteran politicians in deeply Republican states. A poll released by the Lexington Herald-Leader yesterday found Kentucky voters split on the performance of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), with 47 percent approving and 44 percent disapproving. Fifty-five percent disapproved of McConnell's position on Iraq.
Senators from both parties met yesterday morning to try to coalesce around one of two bipartisan amendments to shift course in Iraq. One, deemed "weak tea" by Reid, would adopt the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which was led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III, a Republican, and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.).
Reid said yesterday that the Iraq Study Group's proposal would have to be strengthened to gain Democratic support.
The other bipartisan offer on the table, written by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), would require an immediate shift of mission in Iraq away from combat toward border security, counterterrorism and the training of Iraqi security forces. Collins said a number of senators from both parties began exploring whether the two measures could be melded into one that could attract at least 60 votes.
Those conversations are to continue today as senators try to find amendments to introduce next week. "That is the way forward," Collins said.
Staff writer Jonathan Weisman contributed to this report.