Facing a brewing rebellion among moderates from both parties, Democratic leaders have signaled they are open to a more bipartisan approach...
WASHINGTON — Facing a brewing rebellion among moderates from both parties, Democratic leaders have signaled they are open to a more bipartisan approach to Iraq that would force the Bush administration to begin publicly planning for troop withdrawals but could stop short of mandating a firm timeline.
By retreating from congressional leaders’ more confrontational demand to pull most troops, the compromise could, for the first time, attract veto-proof majorities for legislation pushing troop withdrawals.
Such a deal would also acknowledge that tens of thousands of U.S. troops will probably remain in Iraq well into 2008, possibly beyond.
Earlier Democratic efforts implied as much, by agreeing to let U.S. forces stay to fight terrorism, train and equip Iraqi forces, guard borders and protect U.S. personnel and facilities. But by dropping withdrawal deadlines and courting Republicans, the leaders have all but told anti-war activists to rethink their expectations.
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“Clearly, we don’t have the numbers to override the president’s vetoes, as has been clearly demonstrated,” said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., “nor do we expect to for a long time.”
The movement toward the middle is coming amid reports that have painted a bleak picture of the Iraqi government’s efforts to stand on its own feet.
The U.S. intelligence community has called the government dysfunctional and riven with sectarianism. The Government Accountability Office this week found little progress toward 18 measurable benchmarks that the president himself laid out in January.
And, Thursday, retired Gen. James Jones, a former Marine commandant, told lawmakers that significant numbers of U.S. troops could and should be pulled out of Iraq to spur Iraq’s security forces to assume more control of their country.
Democratic leaders are struggling to find common ground with moderate Republicans to force some change in Bush’s war strategy. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he could drop his demand for a firm troop withdrawal next spring to win GOP votes.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said this week she would allow a vote on bipartisan troop legislation that would force the administration to begin publicly planning for withdrawals without mandating an actual redeployment.
The new effort could alienate party liberals. “You may end up with a revolt from my wing of the party if we do something that doesn’t pass the smell test and quite frankly, infuriates our constituents,” said Rep. James McGovern, D-Mass., a strong opponent of the war.
But the approach also put GOP leaders on defense Thursday. They urged lawmakers to withhold judgment until next week’s reports from Gen. David Petraeus, U.S. commander in Baghdad, and Ryan Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.
“Republicans have said all year that we will listen to those who have witnessed our successes and setbacks firsthand, and as next week’s testimony approaches, we will await any recommendations, next steps, or adjustments that may be needed in our strategy,” said House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio.
With Republican leaders on the defensive and Democratic leaders unsure of the legislative path forward, moderates sense their moment has arrived.
“The House Democratic leadership, in using the Iraq issue in the fall election, imposed on themselves a set of impossible tasks, by going way beyond what they could reasonably achieve under the Constitution, by creating the illusion that they could pull out quickly,” said Rep. Phil English, R-Pa.
“I think this creates an opportunity to step back from their confrontational stance and for Republicans to really reassess where this mission goes from here,” he said.
Several groups of centrists, led by Reps. Nick Lampson, D-Texas; Steve Israel, D-N.Y.; John Tanner, D-Tenn.; Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio; Wayne Gilchrest, R-Md.; Michael Castle, R-Del.; and English, have begun quiet talks about banding together to force both parties’ leaders out of their trenches.
“In both parties, there is a push that comes out of a pure desire for resolution,” Kaptur said. “The question is how you get there. It’s going to require a bipartisan effort.”
Just before the August recess, more than a dozen lawmakers met to forge a centrist push.
A meeting is planned in the next two weeks to bring disparate groups together into a cohesive caucus that would be large enough to force showdowns, even if it meant using parliamentary tactics to embarrass leaders into concessions.
If the group could hold firm, Pelosi would face a choice of governing with a bipartisan centrist coalition or face a full-scale revolt.
But the liberal wing is not about to give in. Recent signals from Reid and other leaders that they would drop their demands for withdrawal timelines led some Democrats to begin firing back Thursday.
“Rather than picking up votes, by removing the deadline to get our troops out of Iraq, you have lost this Democrat’s vote,” said Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., a presidential candidate. “It is clear that half measures are not going to stop this president or end this war.”