The plan was bold: By tying President Bush's $100 billion war request to strict standards of troop safety and readiness, Democrats believed they could grab hold of Iraq war policy while forcing Republicans to defend sending troops into battle without the necessary training or equipment.
But a botched launch by the plan's author, Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.), has united Republicans and divided Democrats, sending the latter back to the drawing board just a week before scheduled legislative action, a score of House Democratic lawmakers said last week.
"If this is going to be legislation that's crafted in such a way that holds back resources from our troops, that is a non-starter, an absolute non-starter," declared Rep. Jim Matheson (Utah), a leader of the conservative Blue Dog Democrats.
Murtha's credentials as a Marine combat veteran, a critic of the war and close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) were supposed to make him an unassailable spokesman for Democratic war policy. Instead, he has become a lightning rod for criticism from Republicans and members of his own party.
Freshman Rep. Joe Sestak (D-Pa.), a retired Navy admiral who was propelled into politics by the Iraq war, said Murtha could still salvage elements of his strategy, but Sestak, an outspoken war opponent, is "a bit wary" of a proposal that would influence military operations.
"I was recently in the military, and I have to speak from that experience," Sestak said.
The story of Murtha's star-crossed plan illustrates the Democratic Party's deep divisions over the Iraq war and how the new House majority has yet to establish firm control over Congress. From the beginning, Murtha acted on his own to craft a complicated legislative strategy on the war, without consulting fellow Democrats. When he chose to roll out the details on a liberal, antiwar Web site on Feb. 15, he caught even Pelosi by surprise while infuriating Democrats from conservative districts.
Then for an entire week, as members of Congress returned home for a recess, Murtha refused to speak further. Democratic leaders failed to step into the vacuum, and Republicans relentlessly attacked a plan they called a strategy to slowly bleed the war of troops and funds. By the end of the recess, Murtha's once promising strategy was in tatters.
Tom Andrews, a former House member and antiwar activist who helped Murtha with his Internet rollout, fumed: "The issue to me is, what is the state of the backbone of the Democratic Party? How will they respond to this counterattack? Republicans are throwing touchdown passes on this because the Democrats aren't even on the field."
Rep. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, a Florida Democrat and deputy whip, said party leaders are working on several Iraq proposals and that Murtha's may survive. Finding consensus will be difficult but not impossible, she said. "This is a multi-step process," she cautioned. "At least we're debating the topic, not blindly following the president."
Megan Grote, Murtha's spokeswoman, said the congressman will not discuss Iraq policy until a news conference scheduled for the end of the week.
Murtha, 74, the powerful chairman of the House Appropriations subcommittee on defense, still holds a unique position on war policy, stemming from his roots as a veteran, his close ties to the uniformed military and his long-standing alliance with Pelosi. When he first publicly called for ending the war in 2005, he commanded the attention the party's left and right wings.
The strategy he would craft was designed to calm the nerves of the party's conservatives by fully funding the war, while placating the antiwar left by attaching so many strings to those funds that the president would not be able to deploy all the 21,500 additional combat troops he wanted.
To be sent to battle, troops would have to have had a year's rest between combat tours. Soldiers in Iraq could not have their tours extended beyond a year there. And the Pentagon's "stop-loss" policy, which prevents some officers from leaving the military when their service obligations are up, would end. Troops would have to be trained in counterinsurgency and urban warfare and be sent overseas with the equipment they used in training.
Pelosi endorsed the plan in concept but never the details. The plan surfaced Feb. 15 in an unorthodox Murtha appearance on MoveCongress.org, an antiwar Web site affiliated with the liberal activists of MoveOn.org.
It came the day before the House voted on a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's additional troop deployments that Democratic leaders had been touting as a major rebuke. Murtha dismissed that vote as he promoted his coming plans regarding the war spending bill. "This vote will be the most important vote in changing the direction on this war," he said of his proposal. "This vote will limit the options of the president and should stop the surge."
To many Democrats, that was not only impolitic, it was disloyal.
"He stepped all over Speaker Pelosi's message of support for the troops," said Rep. Jim Cooper (Tenn.). "That was not team play, to put it mildly."
Even after that Web appearance, some senior Democratic aides say Murtha might well have been able to save his plan if he had quickly laid it out before the Democratic caucus and marshaled Democratic leaders behind a defense. Instead, the House recessed for a week, Murtha disappeared from the media, and Democratic leaders were silent, saying they could not discuss Iraq legislation because no real plan existed.
In the face of an unanswered Republican assault, the Democratic rank-and-file cracked -- on the left and the right.
"While we're all for troop readiness, we're all for them having all the equipment they want," Matheson, the Utah Democrat, said, "I'd be very concerned about doing anything that would hamstring resources and commanders on the ground."
Indeed, Matheson and other Blue Dogs said the Democrats should concentrate on oversight hearings on Iraq policy, while refraining from binding legislation on the war.
The party's newly elected Iraq veterans favor a more straightforward approach than Murtha, establishing a legal timetable for pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq, Sestak said. And the party's antiwar left is no less unhappy with what they see as half measures from Murtha.
"Congress has the authority, and I know it has the responsibility, to get us out of there. And we should use every means possible," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (Calif.), a co-chairman of the Out of Iraq Caucus.
Rep. Barbara Lee (Calif.), another co-chairman who sits on the Appropriations Committee, is likely to try to tie the war spending bill to legislation demanding a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by a date certain, with the bill's money available only for the safe withdrawal of the troops.
Such legislation was precisely what Murtha hoped to head off with his recent Internet appearance, said Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (D-Va.), who helped connect him with MoveCongress.org. And Moran still believes the appearance ultimately will work to the Democrats' favor. "The cognoscenti is upset because he's not under their control," Moran said. "They would prefer he release his plan to a think tank, but he decided he wanted to communicate directly. He doesn't trust the way the media filters what he says and does. He understands the power of being able to communicate."