House Democratic leaders offered a full-throated defense last night of their plans to link Iraq war spending with rigorous standards for resting, training and equipping combat troops, saying that they would hold President Bush accountable for failing to meet those readiness tests.
But after a fractious meeting of the House Democratic caucus, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) said Democratic members still have not united around the proposal.
More than a week after Rep. John P. Murtha (Pa.) detailed plans that he said would curtail deployments to Iraq, Pelosi and other Democratic leaders said the coming debate on war funding would be about forcing the administration to live up to existing military requirements. War funds would be redirected toward equipment, such as night-vision goggles, that some troops lack. Democrats would insist on giving combat troops a year off between deployments, and they could impose restrictions on Pentagon policies that extend combat tours.
They would also condition some war funding on benchmarks for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, said House Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.).
But some Democrats, especially those from conservative districts, remain wary. Rep. James P. Moran Jr. (Va.), who supports the plan, said many Democrats "want to make sure this is still President Bush's war. It's his war to manage, and it's his war to end."
Members of Congress are not "the only ones conflicted," said Rep. John Tanner (Tenn.). "The country's conflicted. We don't want to do the same thing we've been doing for 3 1/2 years that hasn't worked, but we don't want to pull the plug."
In the Senate, the Iraq debate may be on hold for a week or longer while Democrats address concerns about a new effort to limit Bush's war authority.
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) had said that Iraq-related amendments may be considered on a homeland-security bill now before the Senate. But families of Sept. 11 victims fanned out across the Capitol yesterday, saying that a war debate could slow progress on the legislation, which would enact security recommendations by the bipartisan commission that studied the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
"We're going to do our utmost to finish the 9/11 [bill] before we move to Iraq again," Reid said.
Meanwhile, Democrats who have opposed the war from the start are protesting the language of the new Senate Iraq measure, which would repeal the 2002 resolution granting Bush the authority to invade, while limiting future military action and setting a March 31, 2008, goal for withdrawing combat troops. Its cosponsors are Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Armed Services Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.).
Sen. Russell Feingold (Wis.), a prominent war opponent, said he rejected a draft of the new resolution because it appeared to grant Bush too much leeway to continue the conflict. In effect, he said, Democrats would be reauthorizing a war while trying to end it. He was particularly bothered by a provision that suggested an open-ended U.S. commitment to providing border security.
"It's crazy to create a new military mission in Iraq when we should be getting out of there," Feingold said. "I didn't vote for it in the first place. I'll be darned if I'm going to vote for it now."
Senate Democratic leaders said Feingold's concerns are not insurmountable. To the greatest extent possible, they are seeking to maintain public unity on Iraq, despite a wide range of views within the party.