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Democrats take uncompromising stance

Times Staff Writer

Sen. Harry Reid offered his cooperation in December when the Iraq Study Group unveiled its recommendations with a plaintive call for a bipartisan effort to change the course of the war.

“Democrats will work with our Republican colleagues,” promised the Nevada Democrat and soon-to-be majority leader, just weeks after an election that swept Democrats into the congressional majority on a wave of public frustration over Iraq.

Eight bitter months and nine major Iraq-related votes later, the meaning of Reid’s pledge has come into sharp focus: Democrats will work with any GOP lawmaker willing to vote for a mandatory troop withdrawal; other Republicans need not apply.

This bellicose, uncompromising legislative strategy -- on display again this week as Reid refused to allow votes on nonbinding GOP-backed Iraq proposals -- has been an obstacle to any real bipartisan compromise on the war all year. And it effectively ended any chance that a significant number of Republican lawmakers critical of the war would join with Democrats this summer on any Iraq-related legislation.

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The Democratic strategy has yet to yield many tangible results. Just eight of the 250 Republicans in the House and Senate have joined with Democrats calling for a withdrawal.

And President Bush has shown no sign of retreating from his troop buildup, which has boosted the U.S. force in Iraq to 158,000.

But Reid’s approach reflects a simple calculation by senior Democrats about how to force a president they see as stubborn to begin winding down U.S. military involvement in Iraq.

Reid and his allies, enraged by years of being brushed off and belittled by the White House, do not believe the president will respond to legislation that merely urges, rather than orders, a new course, even if it is backed by substantial numbers of congressional Republicans.

“The president doesn’t take advice,” said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and an architect of the current strategy.

Instead, in the face of continued defiance from the White House, Democrats in the House and Senate are focusing their efforts on making their Republican colleagues as uncomfortable as possible in the belief that that is the only way to get through to the president.

All year, Democrats have forced GOP lawmakers to vote on withdrawal proposals, betting that with each vote Republicans who back the president will feel the renewed rage of voters at home.

Democrats hope that, in turn, will drive Republicans to pressure the president to abandon his Iraq strategy or risk ruining the party’s election prospects in 2008.

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Since January, Senate Democrats have orchestrated nine major votes on measures designed to change course in Iraq; House Democrats have arranged for four.

Every proposal but one has died in the Senate, where Republicans have used that chamber’s rules to block the measures.

(An emergency war spending bill with a withdrawal timeline passed but was vetoed by the president in May.)

This week, the latest proposal, which would have required that most troops be out of Iraq by April 30, died as Democrats failed to reach the 60-vote supermajority needed to cut off debate.

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At the same time, Reid stunned Republicans when he shut down votes on alternatives that would have given them opportunities to back less forceful measures. The move locked a political escape hatch for GOP lawmakers, denying them opportunities to tell their constituents that they voted for legislation calling on the president to change course.

One measure -- backed by Republican Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, both widely respected experts on national security -- would have required the president to plan for a withdrawal, but would not have required the Bush administration to implement the plan.

A second proposal, which had collected six Republican and eight Democratic co-sponsors, would have called on the president to implement the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, including a new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. However, it too would not have required a change in course.

Reid’s maneuver outraged many GOP lawmakers.

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Lugar, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who publicly called on the president last month to change course in Iraq, bemoaned what he said was a missed opportunity.

“Any influence the Senate would have on the process was set back,” he said. “What has occurred, due to the intransigence of the leadership, is that we will not have any more discussion about it.”

Lugar is among a group of GOP lawmakers who argue that developing a bipartisan congressional consensus for changing Iraq strategy is the best way to influence the White House.

“We don’t need a Democrat or a Republican plan in Iraq, we need an American plan in Iraq,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the leading co-sponsors of the Iraq Study Group legislation. “Now is the time to look for seeds of consensus.”

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But Reid continued to deride the nonbinding measures. “Just because you pass something on a bipartisan basis that has no teeth in it and you can circle and sing ‘Kumbaya,’ ” doesn’t mean progress, he said. “We need to do something to change the course of the war in Iraq.”

Thus far, that tough line has moved a few Republican lawmakers. Four GOP senators this week backed the Democratic withdrawal plan, two more than those who voted for it in April. GOP support for a similar House measure also doubled, from two to four votes last week.

With Congress headed into its August recess in two weeks, sanguine Democratic leaders promised there would be more votes in September when the Bush administration delivers another progress report on Iraq.

“This will come back,” Assistant Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said. “Our colleagues in the Senate are going to have a chance to go home, explain their votes and vote again. And eventually, I am confident they’ll join us.”

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Meanwhile, the antiwar movement is waging a nationwide campaign to target Republican lawmakers in their home states with ads, rallies and other events designed to persuade them to side with Democrats.

They have a long way to go.

Democrats still need 14 more Republicans in the Senate and close to 70 more Republicans in the House before they could overcome a nearly certain presidential veto of any withdrawal measure.

noam.levey@latimes.com

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