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Democrats challenge Bushto lay out Iraq exit strategy

In a pre-emptive strike before President Bush’s State of the Union address,  congressional Democratic leaders challenged him to develop an exit strategy for Iraq.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi discuss President Bush’s second-term agenda and his State of the Union address Monday at the National Press Club in Washington.Gerald Herbert / AP
/ Source: NBC News and news services

In a pre-emptive strike before President Bush’s State of the Union address, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid called on the administration Monday to outline an exit strategy for Iraq, while his House counterpart vowed lasting opposition to Social Security benefit cuts.

While pushing for an exit strategy, Reid, D-Nev., also said it would be a mistake to set a deadline for the withdrawal of U.S. forces. “That’s not a wise decision, because it only empowers those who don’t want us there,” he said in a joint appearance with House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi of California.

In remarks at the National Press Club, Reid said Sunday’s elections in Iraq marked “a first step in helping figure out a way that the U.S. can get out of Iraq.”

“We have to figure out a way to remove ourselves from there with dignity,” he said.

The White House responded that any exit strategy could not be based on a timetable, which it said would allow insurgent guerrillas to simply wait out the Americans.

“Timetables send the wrong message to the terrorists, because all the terrorists have to do is wait and then they can plan and coordinate and prepare attacks around those timetables," White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.

The administration says U.S. troops can start coming home in significant numbers only when the Iraqis are able to fully govern and protect themselves. An official at the Defense Department told NBC News that the best defense against the insurgents was an aggressive offense, which only U.S. troops could deliver.

Dismissing warm reception
Pelosi spoke dismissively of the reception Bush is likely to receive from Republican lawmakers Wednesday night. “You really don’t have to have very many communications skills if you have a couple of hundred people who will jump to their feet when you recite the ABCs,” she said.

“What the president says, the president will be held accountable for,” she added.

She and Reid sought to lay down markers on issues likely to dominate the congressional agenda this year — Iraq and the broader war on terrorism, as well as Social Security.

In laying out the Democratic position on Iraq, Reid called on the president to “spell out a real and understandable plan for the unfinished work ahead.”

“Most of all, we need an exit strategy so that we know what victory is and how we can get there, so that we know what we need to do and so that we know when the job is done.”

U.S. ‘standing on the sidelines’
Reid, who has been in his job for only a few weeks, credited Bush for Inaugural Day remarks about spreading freedom and democracy across the globe. “But there is a gap between this president’s words and his deeds,” he said. “...There is a gap between saying we are a global leader and standing on the sidelines as new international institutions and alliances take shape without us.”

Reid accused Bush of failing to challenge Saudi Arabia’s treatment of dissidents, letting China handle negotiations with North Korea’s missile-seeking regime and allowing Europeans to grapple with a threat from Iran.

“It’s time that America stood tall again as the real superpower that we are, time that we led the world on dealing with these terrible threats and building a durable peace instead of just hanging back and letting others show the way.”

Reid’s assessment of Bush’s foreign policy represented some of the most biting remarks by a senior Democratic leader since the president won re-election in November. The Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, frequently criticized the president’s handling of the war on terrorism and of conducting an arrogant foreign policy. Election Day interviews with voters indicated that the public preferred Bush’s leadership, but more recent surveys taken before Sunday’s elections in Iraq showed a decline in support for the war.

‘False declaration of a crisis’
For her part, Pelosi largely restated criticism of Bush’s plans for Social Security that she and other Democrats had been leveling for days.

“We can solve this long-term challenge without dismantling Social Security and without allowing this administration’s false declaration of a crisis justify a privatization plan that is unnecessary,” she said.

Bush has called on Congress to pass legislation this year that would make Social Security permanently solvent. At the same time, he wants younger workers to have the option of diverting part of their payroll taxes into private investment accounts. As part of those recommendations, some administration officials have said the president may call for future retirees to receive smaller starting benefits than current law guarantees.

Pelosi said the reduction could amount to 40 percent and added, “Any cut is unacceptable, but a cut of that magnitude is unconscionable.” She said Democrats would also insist that Social Security legislation not add to the deficit and remain fair to the middle class.

“Let there be no doubt in anyone’s mind — Democrats will fight to see Social Security strengthened, not destroyed,” Pelosi said.