A day before Bush was to deliver a major address on the war, Senate Democrats rejected a four-star general’s recommendation to keep some 130,000 troops in Iraq through next summer and called for legislation that would sharply limit the mission of U.S. forces.
Their proposal was not expected to set a deadline to end the war, as many Democrats want, but instead restrict troops to a narrow set of objectives: training the Iraqi military and police, protecting U.S. assets and fighting terrorists, party officials told the Associated Press.
The goal of the tempered measure is to attract enough Republican votes to break the 60-vote threshold in the Senate needed to end a filibuster — something Democrats have been unable to do since taking control of Congress eight months ago.
“I call on the Senate Republicans to not walk lockstep as they have with the president for years in this war,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said at a Capitol Hill news conference. “It’s time to change. It’s the president’s war. At this point it also appears clear it’s also the Senate Republicans’ war.”
The developments Wednesday reflected a struggle by Democrats to regain momentum in the war debate, dominated by two days of testimony by Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador there.
Petraeus said the 30,000 troop buildup initiated earlier this year had yielded some security gains and needed more time. He recommended slowly reversing the buildup, drawing down about 5,500 soldiers and Marines by the end of the year and returning to 130,000 troops next summer.
Plan gives 'an illusion of change'
Reid and other Democrats swiftly rejected the proposal, saying it does not go far enough.
“It creates and provides an illusion of change in an effort to take the wind out of the sails of those of us who want to truly change course in Iraq,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee.
In a bold challenge to Petraeus’ assessment of Iraq, Reid said the “situation on the ground in Iraq has not changed at all.” He later conceded some gains had been made in the western Anbar province, “but it’s like the big balloon that you push on one side and it comes out someplace else.”
Whereas Petraeus’ assessment inflamed Democrats, it assuaged many Republicans. And while it prompted tough questions from several Republican skeptics, including Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Susan Collins of Maine, most said they were still reluctant to impose a firm timetable on the war.
Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., seen as another potential swing vote on the war, said he was working with Sen. Mark Pryor, D-Ark., on legislation that would put Petraeus’ recommendations into law.
Absent a new political climate, Democrats are in a tough position: continue to insist on a hardline position and fail, letting weeks go by without passing anti-war legislation, or soften their stance.
Reid and other leading Senate Democrats huddled in Reid’s office Wednesday to discuss their next steps. At issue was how far to go in forcing a new mission for troops without losing support from either side of the political spectrum, according to congressional aides familiar with the meeting.
If the legislation is nonbinding and only urges Bush to refocus the mission, the bill could lose support from more liberal Democrats such as Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., John Kerry, D-Mass., and Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., who don’t want a watered-down debate. On the contrary, if the bill orders the mission change by a certain date, it might turn off moderates like Warner and Collins.
No details on amendments
Reid declined to discuss details of the plan on Wednesday, saying only that Democrats would offer four to six amendments “to change the course of the war” when the Senate takes up a defense bill next week. Among those will likely be legislation by Sen. Jim Webb, R-Va., that would require troops spend as much time home as they do in combat.
Among the Republicans working with Reid and Levin on anti-war legislation include Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Gordon Smith, R-Neb., two GOP senators who long ago turned against the war.
In a 15-minute address from the White House at 9 p.m. ET on Thursday, Bush will endorse Petraeus’ recommendations, said administration officials. The White House also plans to issue a written status report on the troop buildup on Friday, they said. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush’s speech is not yet final.
While mirroring Petraeus’ strategy, Bush will place more conditions on reductions than his general did, insisting that conditions on the ground must warrant cuts and that now-unforeseen events could change the plan.
Earlier on Wednesday, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that stabilizing Iraq meant more than improving security within its borders and included “the territorial security of Iraq” with respect to its Mideast neighbors, especially Iran.
“Iran is a very troublesome neighbor,” she said on NBC’s “Today” show. “Iran is prepared to fill the vacuum” if the United States leaves Iraq.
In a joint press conference with Crocker on Wednesday, Petraeus said Iranians appear to be trying to create a like Hezbollah-like organization in Iraq that they could use to gain influence inside the fractured country.
On Friday, the president will travel to a Marine base in Quantico, Va., just outside Washington, to talk further about his Iraq policy, the White House announced. Vice President Dick Cheney will do his part, too, speaking on Iraq on Friday at appearances at the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Museum in Grand Rapids, Mich., and at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.