Senators on Iraq war spending bill and troop withdrawal.
Alex Wong  /  Getty Images
Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., explain their proposal for reducing the number of troops in Iraq.
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
msnbc.com
updated 7/17/2007 5:19:11 PM ET 2007-07-17T21:19:11

If Senate Democrats could enact their plan for Iraq, how many American troops would remain there?

That’s not a question to which Democratic leaders gave a precise answer Tuesday.

The Democratic vehicle for trying to change Iraq policy is the Levin-Reed amendment which says that some U.S. troops could remain in Iraq for counter-terrorism and training of Iraqis, after the bulk of the 158,000 now deployed were withdrawn.

The amendment’s co-sponsor, Armed Services Committee chairman Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., told reporters Tuesday that talk of specific numbers was a distraction.

“I’m not going to get into numbers — because it changes the subject from what the issue is,” Levin said. "The issue is whether we’re going to change course, whether we’re going to begin to reduce our troops….”

Lack of specificity no problem for two senators
The amendment speaks of “a limited presence” of American soldiers in Iraq after a reduction takes place. It isn’t more specific than that.

That lack of specificity is not a problem for two of the Democratic senators who won last November as part of an election that some pundits interpreted as a referendum on Iraq and a call to “bring the troops home.”

Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said the Levin-Reed measure was “a step in the right direction. It still gives the commander-in-chief the flexibility he needs as commander-in-chief.”

He added, “there was a significant number of troops in the Middle East before we started this thing; there’s going to be some troops in the Middle East; there’s U.S. interests involved and that’s the nature of the beast.”

Tester said, “We’ve been there (in Iraq) for four years and I don’t think you can anticipate that everybody is going to be out. I don’t think that’s going to be the case. There’ll be some left, as needed. That’s his job as commander in chief.”

But enacting the Levin-Reed measure was important as a statement of the need for a new strategy in Iraq, the Montana Democrat said.

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People in Minnesota 'are practical'
“The people in our state are practical about this,” said Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D- Minn., who said her constituents would not be disappointed that there wouldn’t be total troop withdrawal under the Democratic plan. “People are practical about the fact that they know we need Special Forces there, we need to have people guarding the embassies; we need to have people training police. What they want to do is to make it clear we’re not going to be there indefinitely…. This is very consistent with what the people wanted.”  

She acknowledged that if the Levin-Reed amendment became law, she and Bush could well have different ideas about what a “limited presence” in Iraq would be, but she said, “When you have the whole country watching this administration and cynical about this administration, they can’t say a limited presence is 150,000.”

Likewise one anti-war group signaled its willingness — for now — to live with the Levin-Reed measure.

In an e-mail to its members, the anti-war group Progressive Democrats of America Tuesday urged them to “Tell Democrats that even if the Levin-Reed amendment passes, their work is NOT done. The Levin-Reed Amendment does not end the occupation and it leaves too many troops and all military contractors behind in Iraq.”

The e-mail said that the amendment “would begin to bring some troops home, but would NOT end the occupation!”

Home by the holidays?
But despite the e-mail’s militant tone, Tim Carpenter, executive director of Progressive Democrats of America said in an interview Tuesday that passage of amendment would be “a good first step” and that “in the months ahead” his group would urge senators to “step forward to offer an amendment to bring the troops home by the holidays.”

He said his group had both an “outside” and “inside” strategy, with the latter focused on conversations with Democratic senators and staff members. “Our work inside is incremental,” he explained. “We’re going to push for a vote on no permanent (U.S.) bases” in Iraq, a stance that appears to be at odds with Democratic leaders such Sen. Barack Obama, D- Ill., and Sen. Hillary Clinton, D- N.Y., both of whom have spoken of the need, as they see it, for some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq.

“No permanent bases is a line in the sand for progressive Democrats,” Carpenter said.

Video: Does the U.S. have confidence in Iraq's Maliki? In an alternative to the Levin-Reed proposal, Sen. Mary Landrieu, D- La., offered her own plan Tuesday to re-focus U.S. forces on the hunt for Osama bin Laden and the al Qaida network, with troops being moved from Iraq to Afghanistan.

She would leave to Bush and military commanders the timing, pace and magnitude of the shift of forces.

Re-focus on Afghanistan
“Either to continue to spend money in Iraq where Osama bin Laden is not, or to bring the troops home and say ‘we’ve done all we can on terrorism’ — neither one is correct,” the Louisiana Democrat said.

She said she didn’t support a funding cutoff for either Iraq or Afghanistan operations. “I don’t believe in drying up the money; I believe we’re in a very serious war against terrorism. I just disagree where the front line is.”

As for the Bush administration argument that withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq would create the risk of a failed state and a haven for more terrorists, Landrieu said, “That’s a legitimate question. That is why I’ve not been the one to argue for an immediate pullout or an immediate draw-down. But I cannot understand why we are not trying to redirect our resources in a more appropriate and even way across the front line of terror.”

Last week Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said that under the Democrats’ plans for Iraq “tens of thousands” of troops could remain. But on Monday Reid said the number of soldiers remaining would be “in the low thousands” if Democrats pass the Levin-Reed measure.

The Senate will vote Wednesday on a motion to cut off debate on that amendment; it needs 60 votes in order to succeed.

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