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Democrats vow to keep pressure up

A resolution opposing Bush's Iraq strategy died in the Senate, but its backers gauge support for a stronger measure.

February 25, 2007|Richard Simon | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — When Congress returns to work this week after its holiday recess, Democratic leaders promise to confront President Bush even more forcefully over his Iraq war strategy.

Senate Democrats are moving to modify the 2002 resolution that authorized the war to place new limits on the role of U.S. forces in Iraq.

But it is uncertain whether they will fare any better in this effort than in their last try -- an unsuccessful attempt to pass a symbolic resolution opposing the deployment of 21,500 additional U.S. troops to Iraq.

That resolution passed the House but stalled in the Senate.

Now, Senate Democrats are looking at bringing to a vote a stronger measure, one that would limit the mission of U.S. forces. The measure, which has not been drafted, might restrict military operations to going after Al Qaeda operatives and to supporting and training the Iraqi army. And it might set March 2008 as a goal for withdrawing troops that are not involved in that narrower mission.

Democrats contend that conditions have changed since Congress authorized the invasion to topple Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, and some of the reasons for the war have since been shown to be unfounded.

"Saddam is gone," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), who has introduced legislation that would require the president to return to Congress at the end of this year to extend the war authorization. "Iraq in fact had no weapons of mass destruction."

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) are working on the proposal to set new limits for the U.S. mission in Iraq.

Democratic leaders plan to gauge support for the measure within their caucus. But this latest Democratic effort was already drawing strong Republican criticism.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) panned the proposal as "a Goldilocks resolution: one that is hot enough for the radical left wing, but cool enough for party leaders to claim that they are 'for the troops.' "

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), said Democrats wanted to keep the heat on Republicans. "There is no single piece of legislation that will bring this war to an end, but Democrats will continue to look at ways to force the president to change course," he said.

To overcome a filibuster -- or override a presidential veto -- Senate Democrats need GOP support to challenge the president's war strategy.

Seven Senate Republicans joined Democrats to vote for a debate on the anti-buildup resolution, but that still gave Democrats four fewer than the 60 votes needed to overcome a filibuster.

Democrats say they want to ratchet up political pressure on Republicans, especially those up for reelection next year in states where antiwar sentiment is running high.

Antiwar groups have targeted Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.), who is up for reelection in a state that ousted two House Republicans in November. Sununu voted against a debate on the troop resolution.

"What I don't know is what kind of reaction members are hearing from their constituents back home," Manley said. "But it's evident that the president and his Republican supporters on Capitol Hill are increasingly isolated and out of step with the American people."

Although the new Democratic efforts are aimed at turning up the political heat on Republicans, they could also make some Democrats uncomfortable. Those from conservative districts or states are fearful of taking a step that Republicans could portray as cutting funding to troops in harm's way or tying the commander in chief's hands in wartime.

One Democrat who supported the anti-buildup resolution expressed misgivings about a House effort to attach strings to the White House's latest war-funding request, such as setting troop-readiness standards for deployments.

"It raises constitutional and practical questions to have 535 members of Congress micromanaging troop deployments," said Rep. Chet Edwards (D-Texas). "A more appropriate approach would be for Congress to reconsider the authorization of war or to set deadlines for bringing U.S. troops home."

One prominent Republican war critic, Rep. Walter B. Jones of North Carolina, has come out against any cut in funding for troops.

"We must take great care to ensure that any effort to provide for our armed forces not be used as a proxy for resolving larger issues concerning the war in Iraq," Jones said in a letter to Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Penn.). "Any attempt to 'starve' the war as a way of bringing it to a conclusion, rather than through a serious policy debate about the best way forward in Iraq, would be wrong."

Murtha, chairman of the House defense appropriations subcommittee, has announced plans to sponsor legislation to ban the deployment of units that do not meet strict readiness standards.

Republicans in turn are continuing to dare Democrats to bring to a vote a resolution opposing any cut in funding for the troops.

Democrats, who hold a 51-49 majority in the Senate, also must tread carefully. There has been speculation that Sen. Joe Lieberman, the Connecticut independent who caucuses with the Democrats, would join the GOP if Democrats cut funding for the troops. Such a move would hand control of the Senate to the Republicans.

Last week, Lieberman, one of the strongest Senate supporters of a troop buildup, said that he had "no desire or intention" to leave the Democratic caucus.

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