Democrats’ new efforts gain ground

Times Staff Writers

For the first time, congressional Democrats are moving close to winning significant Republican support for legislation to challenge the way President Bush is managing the war in Iraq.

But even if these bipartisan compromises were to become law, they are unlikely to force the president to pull out troops for at least the next year, no faster than he appears to want.

In the Senate, which will be the center of the war debate next week, a proposal to require more rest between deployments for troops fighting in Iraq appears almost certain to have won enough GOP support to overcome procedural hurdles that have blocked most Democratic initiatives to limit the war.


Army officials, however, said the measure’s requirement that soldiers and Marines spend as much time at home as in the field would have little impact on troop levels in Iraq until late 2008. It would do nothing to speed the withdrawal of the 30,000 troops Army Gen. David H. Petraeus plans to bring home by July. Democrats have criticized the plan as too slow.

Another proposal to scale back what troops can do in Iraq appears to be gaining more Republican support as well.

The measure, which is being developed by senior Senate Democrats, would define limited missions, such as training Iraqi forces, guarding Iraq’s bor- ders and targeting Al Qaeda and other terrorist groups in Iraq.

But that measure would not set limits on how many troops the military could deploy for those narrower missions, potentially allowing the White House to keep a large force in Iraq well into next year or beyond.

Meanwhile in the House, a measure being pushed by a large bipartisan group of lawmakers would only require the president to develop a plan for withdrawing troops from Iraq but not require the White House to implement it.

Senior Democrats, as well as some Republicans, emphasize that they hope strong GOP support for these initiatives will exert pressure on Bush to speed the withdrawal of U.S. troops. Until now, Bush has been largely protected by Republican allies on Capitol Hill.

But even many proponents of ending U.S. military involvement in Iraq acknowledge that congressional Democrats have limited power to force Bush to do anything.

“We recognize that the president is the commander in chief, and he has ignored a lot of things in the past,” said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), who has until recently been uncompromising in his push for a withdrawal. “With all legislation, we have to see first of all if we can get it passed.”

“It’s pretty hard to trap the administration,” said Nebraska Sen. Ben Nelson, a centrist Democrat who introduced a proposal in July with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine) that would limit the mission of troops in Iraq, much like the one being crafted by Senate Democratic leaders.

For much of the year, Democrats have argued that Congress had to set a withdrawal timeline to force the president to change course in Iraq because he would respond to nothing less. Senior Democrats now appear to have forsaken that strategy after months of failing to attract sufficient GOP support to gather the 60 votes needed to defeat a Republican filibuster.

For the last two weeks, Democratic lawmakers have been engaged in an intensive effort to woo Republicans with compromise measures that would shift U.S. policy without setting a deadline for pulling out troops, which many Republicans still vigorously oppose.

Those efforts appear to be bearing fruit.

Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam War veteran who is sponsoring the measure to give troops more rest, said Wednesday in an interview with The Times taped for C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” that he was working closely with Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), one of the GOP’s most respected leaders on defense issues.

Webb said he also expected to receive support from Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-Alaska) and possibly Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), neither of whom has previously backed Democratic efforts to challenge the administration’s war policy.

That would likely provide enough votes to overcome a Republican filibuster, which narrowly blocked the measure during the summer. A similar bill sponsored by Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher (D-Alamo) has already passed in the House.

The move to limit what U.S. forces could do in Iraq also appeared to pick up more Republican support this week as Sen. Elizabeth Dole (R-N.C.), who has been a loyal White House ally, indicated support for the concept Tuesday during Petraeus’ testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee.

That panel’s chairman, Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who is drawing up the measure, said Wednesday he was hopeful the additional GOP support would accelerate the withdrawal of U.S. troops. “What it accomplishes is the same thing all of our efforts have accomplished,” he said. “It’s pressure on this administration to change course, which they are gradually doing.”

Collins, the Maine Republican who will be central to any bipartisan compromise, said she was encouraged by the new Democratic effort to reach across the aisle.

“The Democratic leaders have finally recognized that they cannot get to 60 votes by embracing what many of us believe is an impractical plan of having a hard deadline for rapid withdrawal,” she said. “Now I think they are being more realistic.”

Even if the president decided not to use his veto to prevent the Webb and Levin measures from becoming law, neither would likely compel the president to do anything.

Though the White House has vigorously opposed Webb’s proposal, Army officials said they believed in the short term, the proposal would only prevent a small number of soldiers who had recently switched units from beginning their tours.

The units preparing to go to Iraq in the next six months have all had a year at home and so would not be restricted by the measure.

And, though Army officials say the restrictions would “create a ripple effect down the road,” it is unlikely they would have any effect until the last quarter of 2008, and then only if the Army shifted back to 12-month tours.

If the Army maintains its current 15-month tours, the military could maintain 15 brigades, or about 130,000 troops, in Iraq indefinitely, officials said.

The officials spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to publicly discuss the congressional proposals.

Levin’s proposal, which he is developing with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), would also likely allow the administration substantial latitude to dictate how many troops remained in Iraq.

And there is no guarantee that changing the mission would translate into a rapid reduction in the number of forces in Iraq. In recent months, military commanders have emphasized the need to change the mission slowly to preserve the gains they have made.

Petraeus said this week that he envisioned shifting troops from leading counterinsurgency operations to partnering with Iraqi units in an “overwatch,” or advisory, role. And that transition is what will allow the redeployment of 30,000 troops in the next 10 months, Petraeus said.

Democrats have criticized that as far too slow.

But they may be powerless to change it.

“The tools that we have a fairly limited,” Webb said. “Congress is in a pickle here.”