updated 10/19/2006 3:51:48 PM ET 2006-10-19T19:51:48

Democrats have long complained about President Bush's Iraq war policies. They will get their chance to do something about it if they capture control of Congress in the Nov. 7 elections - but first, they have to agree on a detailed alternative.

Democrats concur that a good starting point would be pressing the president to pull out at least some troops right away.

But with voters going to the polls in less than three weeks, Democrats have yet to declare exactly what that would mean. Unanswered are questions like how many troops they would like to bring home quickly, what their criteria for withdrawal should be, how many troops should be left behind and for how long, and what the mission of the remaining forces should be.

Also unclear is how far Democrats would be willing to go to force the president's hand in the broadly unpopular war. Republicans are warning voters that a Democratic majority could cut off money for Iraq - a possibility Democrats swiftly dismiss, even though such a tactic was used to end U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

"The safety and well-being of our troops will always come first," said Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., in line to take over the Appropriations Committee if Senate Democrats pick up six or more seats in the elections.

A referendum on Bush policies?
The lack of a specific position on Iraq has let Democrats avoid criticism of their own ideas, and kept the campaign season focus on Bush's war policies. It also has allowed them to postpone what could be the painful task of crafting a unified plan on what is a divisive question: What would they do if they were in charge?

What is clear is that if Democrats take over Congress or even one of its chambers, they likely would feel emboldened to take on Bush over Iraq. A strong Democratic victory, coupled with mounting U.S. casualties in a war that has no end in sight, could also push more Republicans to abandon the president on the issue, hastening his slide into lame duck status and the lack of influence that goes with it.

"I believe the election that's coming up is a referendum on a number of administration policies, including Iraq," said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who would head the Senate Armed Services Committee should his party win control of that chamber. If Democrats win votes, he added, "it would reinforce the feeling of many Republicans that ... the policies of this administration are a significant reason for it."

Stay or change the course
Most Republicans, including Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., a potential 2008 presidential candidate, and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, say they agree with Bush that setting a withdrawal timetable would be disastrous because it could leave a security vacuum that terrorists would fill.

But even before Election Day, some Republicans have been critical of the war, including Warner, who has said a change in course may be necessary if the security situation does not improve soon.

Levin said Democrats are not considering a stronger tack yet, such as forcing through legislation demanding the president withdraw troops, because it might not be necessary. A unified voice in Congress would put substantial pressure on the president, he said.

No Democratic agreement
But Democratic divisions in recent months over Iraq illustrate just how tricky it could be for them to chart a unified position should they lead Congress.

In the past year, Democrats have floated various proposals on how to change course in Iraq. Last year, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., called for an immediate pullout. Rep. Ike Skelton of Missouri, top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, suggested that for every three Iraqi units deemed proficient, one American unit be sent home.

Sens. John Kerry, D-Mass., and Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a pair of potential Democratic hopefuls, proposed legislation in June demanding all troops leave by July 2007. But even their Democratic colleagues shied away from such a hard deadline and the Senate shot down their proposal 83-13.

In July, a dozen leading Democrats moved to unify their party position on Iraq, calling on Bush to pull some troops out of Iraq by the end of the year. Providing few specifics, they said they also wanted to switch the U.S. mission in Iraq to a limited support role.

Revisiting of war decision
Also on the Democratic agenda if they win a majority is stepped-up oversight of the war and Bush's anti-terrorism programs, including hearings on the administration's justification to invade Iraq and whether its surveillance and detention programs overstepped legal bounds.

Skelton said he would spend much of his time trying to ease the strain on troops caused by the war and poor planning by the administration.

Democratic supporters say fresh oversight would be welcome in a Congress that under GOP control has been less aggressive about scrutinizing administration policy on Iraq.

But to Republicans, the environment would grow dangerously toxic under a Democratic majority and would work only to inflame public opinion against what they say is a necessary, albeit unpopular war.

Rich Bond, former chairman of the Republican National Committee, said Democrats would try to drown out the message Bush must deliver to Americans: "When they blow things up over there, in their hearts they are blowing things up over here."

Copyright 2006 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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