Despite the Iraq war's unpopularity, Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama said Thursday that Congress lacks the votes to force a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops and will focus instead on putting a ceiling on the number deployed.
"One way of ending the war would be setting a timetable. We're about 15 votes short. Right now it doesn't look like we're going to get that many votes," Obama said, referring to the number needed to override an expected veto by President Bush.
The Illinois senator said the most likely scenario would be to grant troops more time at home between deployments, a politically popular step that's difficult to oppose and one that would have a practical impact.
Break for troops
"You have to at least give people a one-year break for every year served in Iraq," Obama said. "At least that would put a ceiling on how many troops could be sent there at any given time."
In his speech before about 300 people at a park in this eastern Iowa town of 6,100 people, Obama focused on his plan to begin pulling troops out of Iraq immediately and complete the withdrawal by the end of next year.
Later, at a town hall-style meeting in Anamosa, Obama vowed to press Congress to confront the president. Voters, Obama argued, are demanding action and candidates must spell out their views clearly.
"They are very frustrated over a disastrous war," said Obama. "I think it's very important for everybody to take home a record of where these candidates stand on this war."
Obama said Congress should at least try to reverse course on the war.
"We should not wait until George Bush is out of office to start bringing this war to a close," said Obama. "I believe that Congress should not and must not give George Bush a blank check. I believe Congress should impose a timetable and some constraints."
With only a thin Democratic majority in both chambers of Congress, Obama said the effort may fall short.
"I cannot guarantee we can get all the Republicans we need, but we have to try," said Obama.
Obama spoke on the same day Bush was to address the nation, seeking support for his plan to maintain troop levels in Iraq until next summer, then withdraw about 30,000 troops if conditions are favorable. Bush has said he's basing his plan on the advice of the nation's military leaders.
Speaking with reporters, Obama dismissed Bush administration claims that an increase in troops has brought progress to Iraq.
"After an additional 30,000 troops and enormous sacrifice, we are back to where we were in June 2006," said Obama. "We have not made progress politically."
Obama argued that Bush's plan "is not a change in course. We need to start a more substantial withdrawal and we need to start it now."
Obama also rejected arguments from some of his Democratic rivals that his plan to pull troops out of Iraq is not aggressive enough.
"If anybody disputes that we can get more than one or two brigades out per month, then they should talk to the military experts," said Obama. "There is a strong consensus among the military that that is the quickest we can do it."
Obama's proposals come amid frustration among many Democrats that the narrowly divided Congress has been unable to take decisive action to end the war.
Obama ended his swing at a rally in Dubuque with about 500 people, where he defended his plan to withdraw troops in phases. He returns to the state on Sunday to speak at Sen. Tom Harkin's annual steak fry near Indianola.