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Democrats struggle to define their next move on Iraq

Jill Zuckman and Aamer Madhani
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

WASHINGTON - By most measures, congressional Democrats should have the political wind at their backs on the Iraq war. They swept to power last November because of the public's dissatisfaction with the conflict and poll numbers show a majority of the public wants to bring the troops home.

Instead, Democrats in the House and Senate are struggling to find the best way to express congressional disapproval of the war and President Bush's troop buildup. They are wary both of going too far and not going far enough as they try to strike a balance that most Democrats, and perhaps some Republicans, can support.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., was unequivocal on funding for U.S. soldiers. "Let me be very clear: Congress will fund our troops," she said.

Democratic leaders remain fearful that if they do not handle the situation deftly, Republicans will paint them as micromanaging the war and failing to support the troops. On the other hand, many of the voters and groups that helped the Democrats win in November may grow frustrated and impatient if the party does not take strong action to challenge Bush's initiatives in Iraq.

"On some level, we won't be satisfied until the war is ended," said Roger Hickey, co-director of the Campaign for America's Future, a progressive group that is part of a broader coalition to end the war.

The Republicans, meanwhile, are far from dispirited, and are waiting to strike at whatever the Democrats come up with. They kept defections to a minimum on the recent House vote for a non-binding resolution disapproving of a troop escalation in Iraq, and they managed to block a similar resolution in the Senate.

The debates were evident as Congress returned from its Presidents' Day recess Tuesday to resume discussions on how to proceed on Iraq. In the House, Democrats are divided over a plan by Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., to require that troops be trained and equipped to a certain level before being sent to Iraq.

In the Senate, lawmakers have postponed further debate about the war for up to two weeks while they seek a consensus and finish work on a bill to enact the anti-terrorism recommendations of the Sept. 11 Commission.

"We are not going to drop the issue," said Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., the assistant majority leader. However, he added, "We have to face the reality that without 60 votes we can't enact any law or any appropriation in the Senate."

Democratic senators are debating whether to revise the 2002 authorization that gave President Bush the authority to use force in Iraq and instead order troop withdrawals beginning this summer. But not everyone agrees with that strategy

Sen. Russell Feingold, D-Wis., who voted against the 2002 resolution and has called for setting a deadline for a troop withdrawal, said rewriting the war authorization is the wrong move. "I did not vote for this war, and I'm not going to vote to authorize it in another form," Feingold said.

But Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., said the 2002 authorization no longer applies to the situation in Iraq. "There is a lot of room to modify the original authorization or end it," Webb said.

In the House, Democrats are engaged in a debate over how best to proceed without being portrayed as undermining the troops.

"We're going to figure it out in the days ahead," said Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., in advance of a closed-door caucus meeting Tuesday night.

Pelosi batted away the notion that Democrats would limit funding for the troops by tying it to troop readiness, as Murtha has proposed.

Whether those readiness standards will be tied at all to a $100 billion supplemental spending bill to fund the troops is unclear. Pelosi said it is up to the House Appropriations Committee, which has yet to write the legislation.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates warned Congress on Tuesday that if it holds up or puts conditions on the administration's request to fund the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq it would have a disastrous effect.

"If these additional funds are delayed, the military will be forced to engage in costly and counterproductive reprogramming actions starting this spring to make up for the shortfall, " Gates said. "Timely enactment of this supplemental request is critical to ensuring our troops in the field have the resources they need."

Senate Democrats are taking the warning to heart, leery of tinkering with legislation that funds the war.

"I think going at funding is dangerous, because you never really know what might happen with what you cut," said Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.. "And it offers the opportunity for them to come back to say (these troops) group got killed because you cut this funding."

Republican lawmakers who support the war, meanwhile, are watching the Democratic machinations with irritation. "I don't know why they're doing what they're doing," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.. "All I wish is they would give this strategy a chance to succeed."

Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., described Democratic proposals to tie military funds to certain benchmarks as micromanaging. "Those are the kind of restrictions that our commanders would find it very difficult to work with when we've asked them to carry out a dangerous mission there," said Kyl, who recently returned from a trip to Iraq.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, lawmakers face a growing coalition aimed at bringing the war to a close.

"It is tragic that each day there's more young Americans killed over there, and we're working with lots of groups to pressure members of Congress . . . to hear the 70 percent of the people who want a date set to get out of there," said Hickey.

As lawmakers in the House and Senate considered their options, top administration officials acknowledged that the situation on the ground remains grim, even as the troop escalation gets underway.

Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee Tuesday that two of the three brigades promised by Iraq have moved into the capital, but the Iraqi battalions still are suffering from high rates of absenteeism.

Bush has touted the troop buildup as a chance to shore up security in Baghdad and the restive Anbar province, but has said that ultimately the solution in Iraq will be a political one.

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