WASHINGTON – Democratic leaders in Congress have decided to shift course and pursue modest bipartisan measures to alter U.S. military strategy in Iraq, hoping to use incremental changes instead of aggressive legislation to break the grip Republicans have held over the direction of war policy.
Standing against them will be President Bush, who intends to use a prime-time address tonight to try to ease concerns that his Iraq strategy will lead to an open-ended military commitment.
Both efforts share a single target: a handful of Republican moderates in the Senate whose votes the Democrats need to overcome the threat of a GOP filibuster. Should enough Republican moderates sign on to a compromise measure, Democrats could finally pass legislation aimed at changing direction of the war in Iraq.
“We’re reaching out to the Republicans to allow them to fulfill their word,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Wednesday. “A number of them are quoted significantly saying that come September that there would have to be a change of the course in the war in Iraq.”
After two days of congressional testimony from Army Gen. David Petraeus and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, the battle lines in the House and Senate over the war have begun to shift, with moderate members of both parties building new momentum behind initiatives that would force the White House to make modest changes to the military mission in Iraq but not require a substantial drawdown of troops by a set date. Democratic leaders, who have blessed the new approach, now believe that passing compromise legislation is the first step toward more ambitious measures aimed at ending the war.
After months of false starts and dead ends, Democratic leaders are taking a pragmatic turn.
“We want to get something to the president’s desk,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md., chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee.
The Senate next week will resume consideration of its annual defense policy bill, which Reid had abruptly pulled from the floor in July after he failed to add an amendment that would have imposed timetables for the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq. This time, however, Democratic leaders will focus their efforts on four to six amendments that they believe could get the 60 votes needed for passage.
“One of the first will be a revised version of legislation that would ensure that troops returning from Iraq be granted a home leave at least as long as their last deployment before returning to the battlefield.
The amendment garnered 56 votes in July, and with Sen. Tim Johnson, D-S.D., back on the job after suffering a brain hemorrhage, the measure should be within three votes of victory.
“Another amendment in bipartisan talks is a revised withdrawal measure that would likely include timelines to start troop drawdowns but would leave a final pullout date as a goal rather than a deadline.
“And an amendment by Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, to mandate a change of mission in Iraq is gaining currency with Democratic leaders, according to leadership aides. The amendment would order missions to shift immediately from combat to counterterrorism, border security and the training of Iraqi security forces. It would not mandate troop withdrawals, but Collins said such withdrawals would be inevitable, since the remaining missions could be accomplished with between 50,000 and 60,000 troops.