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Moderates work to end impasse on Iraq

The lawmakers want to change the course of the war minus a date for withdrawal. But will the others go along?

September 06, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — Frustrated with the fierce partisanship of the war debate, moderate lawmakers on Capitol Hill are intensifying their drive to craft compromise measures to break the congressional impasse over U.S. policy in Iraq.

Democrats and Republicans involved in the efforts say they want to pressure the White House to change course so American troops can start coming home. But their proposals stop short of setting a withdrawal deadline, the centerpiece of the Democratic legislative campaign to force an end to U.S. involvement in the war.

"There is a lot of frustration out there. People want us to end the war," said Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). "But what people also want in my state is they want Congress to do something." Salazar has been pushing a proposal to implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, which last year urged changes in Iraq policy designed to hasten a U.S. withdrawal.

The obstacles to any compromise remain formidable.

Many Democrats, including the influential House Out of Iraq Caucus, continue to believe the only way to end the war is to force President Bush to bring troops home by a specific date.

At the same time, partisan tensions remain extremely high in Washington. The president and Democratic congressional leaders along with their activist allies kept up an angry war of words during the August congressional recess.

But discussions percolating among lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco), could portend a new phase of the Iraq debate, which has dominated Congress for much of the year.

"There may be a significant common ground that is not apparent from the political rhetoric or the intensity of the conflict in Congress," said Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), one of the leading advocates of a bipartisan House plan endorsed by Pelosi to compel the president to report regularly to Congress on plans to redeploy troops.

Pelosi and some of her senior lieutenants have been working since before the recess to develop Iraq legislation that could draw more GOP support and quiet public criticism that the Democratic Congress has failed to change the president's war policies.

"The idea was to peel off Republicans just like we did in the first weeks of the Congress," said Rep. Neil Abercrombie, a Hawaii Democrat who helped craft the measure that English has backed.

Though English has vehemently opposed Democratic withdrawal timelines, he said Wednesday that he believed a measure to change Iraq strategy that did not order a withdrawal could influence the president -- if it attracted substantial GOP support.

"I know the administration reads the tea leaves on the Hill," he said. "They need to have a coalition on the Hill. Having always been sensitive to that in the past, I have to believe they have to recognize where the Hill is going."

English, Abercrombie and Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.) on Wednesday joined 10 other House lawmakers in signing a letter asking Pelosi to bring the measure to compel reports from the president up for a vote "as soon as possible."

The letter came a day after another bipartisan group of House members, including Tanner, urged Pelosi and House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) to "work together to put an end to political infighting over the war in Iraq and allow the House to unite behind a bipartisan strategy to stabilize the country and bring out troops home."

Delaware Rep. Michael N. Castle, the leading Republican author of the first letter, which drew 11 lawmakers, including six Republicans, said, "The public feels it is our responsibility to come up with solutions not just make political speeches."

Castle said Wednesday that next week's progress report from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the senior American commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, should serve as an impetus for more cooperation between the parties. "There is no better time to do it than at a time when you are getting outside advice," he said.

In the Senate, Salazar and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) met to talk about rejuvenating their proposal to implement the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. Before the August recess, more than a dozen lawmakers from both parties backed the measure, which, though nonbinding, would urge a new strategy in Iraq. Some recommendations are broad, such as calls for a diplomatic initiative in the Middle East, while others are specific, such as installing meters on Iraqi oil pipelines.

"The most important thing we need to do is to speak with one voice," Alexander said, emphasizing his measure's symbolic value. "It's inexcusable that we should spend so much time lecturing the Baghdad parliament about not being able to come up with a consensus when we haven't come up with one ourselves."

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