A Senate test vote on Iraq has the makings of a turning point in the Democratic presidential campaign, obliging Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama to take a fresh look at calls for cutting off war funds.
Both have voted against binding timetables for troop withdrawals in the past, before public sentiment against the war hardened or they became presidential contenders.
Aides to the two 2008 presidential hopefuls declined comment on the issue Monday night, two days before a scheduled vote on Sen. Russ Feingold's proposal to cut off funding for nearly all military operations in Iraq after next March 31.
"The American people deserve to have the Senate go on record about whether or not it wants to end our misguided mission in Iraq and safely redeploy our brave troops," Feingold, D-Wis. said in a statement.
A campaign issue
Feingold has conceded his measure stands virtually no chance of prevailing, and it will come to the floor under a procedure that requires 60 votes to advance.
Yet the war dominates the fast-moving presidential campaign, and Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut swiftly challenged his White House rivals to join him in supporting the legislation.
"I am calling on all my other colleagues running for President to state clearly where they stand on this important legislation by joining me as a co-sponsor of Feingold-Reid and stating how they would vote on the bill," he said.
As leaders in the early polls, Clinton and Obama - as well as former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina - have sought for months to outmaneuver one another in showcasing opposition to the war in hopes of gaining the support of groups such as MoveOn.org.
Like Clinton, Edwards voted in 2002 to authorize the invasion of Iraq. Unlike her, he has apologized for his vote. She has steadfastly refused to take that step, saying instead that if she knew then what she knows now, she would have opposed the legislation.
Obama was not in the Senate at the time of the vote. But he spoke out against the invasion at the time - and reminds his campaign audiences of it frequently.
More recently, when Senate Democrats advanced legislation with a nonbinding goal of a March 31, 2008, troop withdrawal, Obama pointed out he had suggested something similar months earlier.
"It expresses the central insight that we can't have our troops policing a civil war," he said.
A 'date-certain' issue
Clinton generated publicity recently when she signed onto legislation calling for Congress to terminate the authorization it handed Bush in 2002 - a proposal that other senators and presidential rival Bill Richardson had advocated months earlier.
But so far, neither Clinton nor Obama has supported a binding deadline for the cessation of combat by U.S. forces.
In November, 2005, Clinton said an immediate U.S. withdrawal from Iraq would be a "big mistake," and added, "I think that would cause more problems for us in America."
In January, 2006, she said she was not advocating a "date certain" for a troop withdrawal, and as recently as March, spoke against a hard deadline.
Last month, in a brief exchange in the Capitol, Clinton declined to state a position on Feingold's proposal.
Like Obama, she voted against a proposal in the Senate last June to require the withdrawal of all combat troops from Iraq by July 1, 2007.
The measure was defeated overwhelmingly, 86-13, and at the time, Democratic leaders were concerned that even airing the issue on the Senate floor might work against the party heading into the midterm elections.
Obama, in remarks on the Senate floor last June, said he was against a "precipitous withdrawal of our troops," which he said could plunge Iraq into an "even deeper and, perhaps, irreparable crisis."
In the first debate of the campaign, last month, Obama sketched a plan that made no mention of a troop withdrawal timetable. "We've got to have a political solution, begin a phased withdrawal, and make certain that we've got benchmarks in place so that the Iraqi people can make a determination about how they want to move forward," he said.
Like Clinton, he also declined to say last month when asked just outside the Senate chamber how he intended to vote on Feingold's measure.
The legislation requires the president to begin the "safe, phased withdrawal of U.S. forces" within 120 days. After March 31, 2008, all funds would be cut off for the deployment of troops in Iraq, with three exceptions: "targeted operations" against al-Qaida and other terrorists; security of U.S. facilities and personnel; training and equipping of Iraqi security forces.