Moderates Talk the Talk

Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 23, 2007; Page A06

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) and her band of Senate moderates chatted amiably last weekend as they sat knee to knee in an armored van for a half-hour trip up a desert mountain to meet with Kurdistan President Mustafa Barzani.

They fretted Sunday night over their just-ended meeting with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as their Army Strykers slowly made their way to a Baghdad market. And before their military 737 landed at Andrews Air Force Base, bringing them home in pre-dawn darkness Monday, Snowe and Democratic moderates Max Baucus (Mont.), Ben Nelson (Neb.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.) talked intensely for two hours, struggling to find a bipartisan way to shift course in Iraq over omelets, waffles and bacon.

In Baghdad, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe meets with Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Summers. She went to Iraq last weekend to meet with other service members from Maine, U.S. commanders and Iraqi government officials.
In Baghdad, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe meets with Lt. Cmdr. Charlie Summers. She went to Iraq last weekend to meet with other service members from Maine, U.S. commanders and Iraqi government officials. (Courtesy Sen. Olympia J. Snowe)

But for all that talk, the group of Senate moderates who had promised to find the 60 votes needed to change course in Iraq seems no closer to that goal, even as the latest debate on the war winds to a close this week.

"If we go through this repetitive process with no resolution, it will be a major letdown to the American people," Snowe warned her colleagues during a Wednesday morning meeting of the Senate centrists. "It will erode the public's confidence in our ability to address major issues, especially on Iraq."

All summer, many congressional Republicans and Democrats promised that come September, the president would have no choice but to bring substantial numbers of troops home and, for those who remained, to change the mission away from combat. If those promises fail to materialize, the blame will be spread widely: to Republicans who have doggedly stuck by Bush; to Democratic leaders who have continued their confrontational demands for withdrawal deadlines, despite promises of compromise; and to the moderates who were supposed to have brokered the deal.

"I'm not giving up hope, but it may be that the clock runs out and we move on without considering this," Nelson conceded last week, even as he defended the deliberations of his fellow centrists. "I'm not looking to have a vote just to see if we have 60 votes. I want to present something only when it really looks like we have sufficient support to get it enacted."

"For us, for me," Salazar said, "it's been useful just to have conversation on what's going on with all the different proposals, to hear where my colleagues are."

Snowe put it differently: "It's political dysfunction."

The moderates in the Senate do share a common goal. They want to bring more troops home than the 30,000 that Bush would withdraw by next summer, and they want the U.S. military mission to change from combat to counterterrorism, border security and the training of Iraqi security forces.

But pride of authorship, Balkanization and indecision have thwarted their attempts to find a common legislative vehicle. Salazar is still pushing his amendment to enact the bipartisan recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, despite comments by Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) characterizing the measure as toothless. Nelson is sticking to the plan that he and Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) drafted, which would mandate a shift of mission without requiring any troop withdrawals. Snowe has her own plan, linking deployment levels to political benchmarks. And perhaps a half-dozen other proposals are competing with those, including a nonbinding plan by Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) to partition Iraq and a proposal by Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) to pull some troops out within 120 days, though it also frowns on a "precipitous withdrawal" and eschews a deadline for any mission changes.

Democratic leaders have not done anything to thwart that search for compromise, Baucus said, but they have not done much to foster it, either.

Meanwhile, the White House and the Republican leadership have marshaled their arsenal to stop legislative progress on any changes in war strategy. It started with the testimony of the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, and was followed by private lobbying by Special Operations forces commanders, a top general for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the leading brass of the Army.

"It'll be very difficult, very difficult," Baucus said of the ongoing search for compromise. "The Petraeus testimony kind of put this whole question of change on hold. That is the administration's goal: to kick the can down the road to the next administration."

Last weekend's trip to Iraq featured four of the Senate's most visible moderates, and it did spur talks, a lot of talks. The four have continued to talk since their return. They met almost every morning last week in a modern conference room of Baucus's Senate Hart Office Building suite, joined by other moderates, such as Sens. Collins, Mark Pryor (D-Ark.) and Thomas R. Carper (D-Del.). Baucus was chosen to lead the discussions, in part because he has a proven track record on the Finance Committee of brokering bipartisan deals, and in part because his name is not attached to any of the competing plans.

The group members talked on Wednesday, just before a Republican filibuster shot down Senate efforts to restore legal rights to terrorism suspects. They talked shortly before the Senate fell four votes short of the 60 needed to approve legislation to extend troops' time between combat tours. On Friday, Nelson and Baucus talked about talking further, just before a measure to impose troop withdrawal deadlines was trounced.

And they have vowed to talk some more, this week and into the future, even after the current debate ends with the passage of a defense policy bill that is now likely to be shorn of any substantive Iraq policies.

"I don't think the debate will be over," Nelson said. "This mechanism for debate might move on, but you'll still have the defense appropriations bill. You'll have a supplemental [Iraq war spending bill] coming. The key is not to rush into something, but to make sure you've got it right."

Only Snowe appears to be frustrated by all the talking. Indeed, her condemnations of the government of Iraq, which has failed to meet U.S. benchmarks for political progress, are beginning to color the language she uses to describe efforts in the Senate.

"Obviously, we're all committed to our positions, but at some point you have to recognize, is there something else that can be accomplished in all this?" she said. "Because the bottom line is, the American people want change. The American people are there. They've been emphatic about that. Now we have to do something, so this doesn't become some sort of an all-or-nothing proposition."

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