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DEMOCRATS SHIFT IRAQ WAR DEBATE TO EXIT STRATEGY

Times Staff Writers

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 in Congress had 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-San Francisco), who has spent weeks trying to craft legislation to fulfill her party’s electoral mandate to end the war.

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.

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It also remains unclear whether Democratic leaders will be able to persuade all of their members to back the efforts, with moderates worried about restricting military commanders and liberals certain the war should end even sooner.

White House officials responded with a promise that Bush would veto any legislation that constrained 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,” said Dan Bartlett, a senior advisor to Bush.

Republican leaders criticized the proposals as a dangerous attempt to micromanage the 4-year-old war.

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The announcements seemed to provide at least a momentary jolt for Democrats searching for an Iraq plan to help them regain the momentum that swept them into the majority in November.

“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 has faulted his colleagues for not being more aggressive.

Senate Democrats, including Feingold, announced plans to push a binding resolution that would begin troop withdrawals no later than 120 days after the resolution was 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 failed 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.

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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.

The proposals came after weeks of debate as leaders struggled to find a war strategy that could unite a Democratic caucus with disparate views about how to challenge the Bush administration.

As polls showed growing public frustration with Bush, Democrats faced complaints that they had no plan of their own.

Democratic leaders initially appeared to favor a more modest approach that set limits on Bush’s plan to deploy 21,500 additional troops, most of whom will be sent to Baghdad to try to contain violence between Shiites and Sunnis.

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But antiwar lawmakers, who wield substantial influence in the House, balked at what they said were half measures that did not move aggressively enough to force an end to the war.

Moderates worried about legislation that would prevent military commanders from getting the forces they say they need.

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, Bush would have to certify by July 1 that the Iraqi government was making progress on a series of benchmarks, including training its army and passing laws designed to reduce sectarian strife.

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If the president cannot do that, the administration would have to begin withdrawing troops immediately and conclude by the end of the year.

If Bush reports progress, he would face another deadline, 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 would put a series of requirements on the president to certify that military units deploying to Iraq were adequately rested, trained and equipped, a measure crafted by Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.) to slow Bush’s troop “surge.”

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In a nod to moderates, Murtha and House leaders agreed to allow Bush to waive the requirements if he explained why.

In addition, the Democrats have proposed changes to the $100-billion supplemental war spending bill.

They want to boost funding for veterans’ healthcare after 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.

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Pelosi, in announcing the multifaceted proposal, said: “This is the product of the work among the members of our House Democratic caucus who have concerns about our security and the readiness of our troops, who are appalled by the conditions facing our veterans when they return home, and who want to have some benchmarks of accountability for the Iraqi government to lead to the redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq safely, responsibly and soon.”

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 crucial for it to pass.

Rep. Dennis Cardoza (D-Atwater) called it “sufficiently broad to bring in enough of my colleagues.” Cardoza is a former co-chairman of the 43-member Blue Dog Coalition of moderate Democrats.

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“We’re on the 1-yard line right now,” said Rep. Patrick J. Murphy (D-Pa.), another Blue Dog member who served in Iraq with the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division before being elected to Congress last year.

The proposal generated less enthusiasm among hard-core antiwar lawmakers in the House, who lined up behind a proposal sponsored by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland) to fund the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq by the end of the year.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), 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 had not endorsed the proposal.

“We’re not there yet,” she said.

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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.

With narrow majorities in the House and Senate, Pelosi and Reid can afford to lose few members of their party. Reid will need support from about a dozen GOP lawmakers to break any filibuster by Republican leaders. And it would be an almost impossible challenge to get the two-thirds majorities needed to override a presidential veto.

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 GOP support. Republican leaders promised to vote against any spending measure that dictated how the war was fought.

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House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) said Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, “should be making decisions on the ground in Iraq, and not Nancy Pelosi and John Murtha.”

Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Texas), a Vietnam veteran who helped lead Republican opposition to last month’s Democratic resolution, called a timetable for troop withdrawal “even nuttier” than nonbinding resolutions.

“You can’t win a war by giving the enemy your game plan,” he said.

But Murtha, who discounted suggestions that the military would soon run out of money unless the bill was passed, almost dared Republicans to vote against a bill that added money to improve veterans’ healthcare and stepped up the fight against Al Qaeda and Taliban forces in Afghanistan.

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“Republicans have to be very careful with this,” he said.

noam.levey@latimes.com

richard.simon@latimes.com

Times staff writers Nicole Gaouette and James Gerstenzang contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Democrats’ plans

Democratic leaders in the House and Senate unveiled timetables for the withdrawal of U.S. combat troops from Iraq. Both approaches would allow some forces to remain to protect American operations, train Iraqis and conduct counter-terrorism raids.

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House proposal

July 1: The president must certify that Iraq is making progress toward key goals, such as disarming militias. If he does not, combat troops would be withdrawn by December.

Oct. 1: The president must certify that Iraqis have met key goals. If he does not, combat troops would be withdrawn by March 2008.

March 1, 2008: Latest start date for the redeployment of combat troops.

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August 2008: All combat troops must be withdrawn.

Senate proposal

120 days after passage: The president must begin withdrawing combat troops.

March 31, 2008: The goal for redeploying all combat forces.

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Troop readiness

House Democrats plan to require the president to follow military standards for troop readiness. If he waives them, Democrats would require him to explain his decision. The standards would:

* Limit troop deployments in war zones to 13 months.

* Require troops to spend 12 months at home before any new deployment.

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* Ensure that military personnel receive all necessary training and equipment before they go into a war zone.

Added war spending

The president originally asked for $93.4 billion to fight international terrorism and finance the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. House Democrats have proposed more spending to redirect the war on terrorism toward Afghanistan and to address concerns about substandard healthcare for wounded U.S. troops. Details of their request:

* $1.2 billion to fight Al Qaeda and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

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* $3.5 billion for military and veterans hospitals.

* $1.4 billion for military housing.

* $3.1 billion to close and reorganize military bases.

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Sources: House and Senate Democratic leadership


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