WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders outlined plans Thursday to compel President Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. combat forces from Iraq as soon as this summer, marking the first time the majority party in Congress has called for a deadline to end the unpopular war.
The proposals dramatically shift the debate on Capitol Hill from symbolic measures to concrete plans to bring troops home just two months after Democrats assumed power.
“Our troops must be out,” said House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., who has spent weeks trying to craft legislation to fulfill her party’s electoral mandate to end the war.
White House officials responded Thursday with a promise that Bush would veto any legislation that constrains the war effort. “What we’re seeing here is an artificial, precipitous withdrawal from Iraq based on, unfortunately, politics in Washington, not on conditions on the ground in Baghdad,” Bush senior adviser Dan Bartlett said.
Underscoring the challenges that confront Democrats with their latest legislative gambit, House and Senate leaders have drawn up different timetables and mechanisms for achieving a withdrawal.
It also remains unclear whether Democratic leaders will be able to persuade all their members to back the efforts, with some worried about restricting military commanders and others convinced the war should end even sooner.
Republican leaders meanwhile blasted the proposals as a dangerous attempt to micromanage the 4-year-old war.
For Democrats searching for an Iraq plan to help them regain the momentum that swept them into the majority in November, Thursday’s announcements seemed to provide at least a momentary jolt.
“This is a major moment in the history of ending the Iraq war,” said Sen. Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., a leading war critic who had faulted his colleagues earlier for not being aggressive enough.
Senate Democrats, including Feingold, announced plans Thursday to push a binding resolution that would begin troop withdrawals no later than 120 days after the resolution is approved and would set as a “goal” the withdrawal of all combat troops by the end of March 2008.
In the House, Pelosi and senior lawmakers laid out a more complex timetable that would require the withdrawal of U.S. forces as soon as the end of this year, if the Iraqi government fails to meet key goals, such as disarming sectarian militias. House Democrats incorporated their plan in a spending bill that is essential to fund operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Both the House and Senate proposals would allow some U.S. forces to remain in Iraq for limited missions, such as training Iraqi armed forces and conducting anti-terrorism operations.
By attaching a timetable to the supplemental war spending bill, House Democratic leaders appeared to be offering a substantial concession to the party’s staunchest war critics.
Under the plan outlined Thursday, Bush would have to certify by July 1 that the Iraqi government is making progress on a series of benchmarks, including training its army and passing laws designed to reduce sectarian strife. If the president cannot do that, the administration would have to begin withdrawing troops immediately and conclude by the end of the year.
If the president reports progress, he would face another deadline on Oct. 1. At that time, he would have to certify that the Iraqi government had met the benchmarks. If he cannot, U.S. forces would have to withdraw by March 2008.
Even if all the benchmarks are met, U.S. forces would have to begin withdrawing by March 1, 2008, and finish by the end of August.
The House Democratic plan also would put a series of requirements on the president to certify that military units deploying to Iraq are adequately rested, trained and equipped, a measure designed by Rep. John P. Murtha, D-Pa., to slow the president’s “surge.”
But in a nod to moderates, Murtha and House leaders agreed to allow the president to waive the requirements if he explains why he is doing so.
In addition, the Democrats have proposed changes to the more than $100 billion supplemental war spending bill.
They want to boost funding for veterans’ health care in the wake of news reports about deplorable outpatient housing and lengthy bureaucratic delays at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. And they want to allocate more money for combat operations in Afghanistan, which Democrats argue should be the focus of U.S. efforts to combat global terrorism.
Democratic leaders have not finished drafting the bill and many provisions remain vague.
The plan nonetheless received cautious endorsements from several moderate Democrats, a group whose support is critical for it to pass.
“We’re on the one-yard line right now,” said Rep. Patrick Murphy, D-Pa., a member of the Blue Dog coalition of moderate Democrats who served in Iraq with the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division before being elected to Congress last year.
The proposal generated less enthusiasm among hard-core anti-war lawmakers in the House, who lined up Thursday behind a proposal sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., to fully fund the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a leader of the more than 80-member Out of Iraq Caucus, said the group had a “lively” meeting with party leaders Thursday afternoon, but has not endorsed their proposal.
“We’re not there yet,” she said.
Senate Democrats appeared more unified behind the straightforward resolution sponsored by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who was joined Thursday by Feingold and Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a centrist.
Reid said he hoped to attract Republican support for the measure. “Truly changing course in Iraq will require Republican cooperation,” he said.
As Democrats edged toward a high-stakes showdown that puts a military funding bill at the center of a debate over ending the war, there were few signs of Republican support. Republican leaders immediately promised to vote against any spending measure that dictates how the war is fought.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said that Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, “should be making decisions on the ground in Iraq and not Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha.”