Democrats fail to gain much ground on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Slouching in a chair in his Capitol suite Thursday afternoon, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid made little show of hiding his frustration over the defeat of Democrats’ latest bid to rein in the Iraq war.

“The power of the White House was too much,” the Nevada Democrat said glumly.

Despite days of lobbying and cajoling, Reid and other Democratic lawmakers on Wednesday had failed again to persuade more than a handful of Republicans to back a proposal to give troops more rest between deployments -- a move that would constrain their use in Iraq.


And although Reid and other senior Democrats pledged to keep working on legislation to force an end to the 4 1/2 -year-old war, none offered any new ideas on how to outmaneuver a president who has derailed every effort this year challenging his wartime leadership.

Senior Democrats still have not devised ways to counter the influence of the military officials whom the Bush administration sends to Capitol Hill to caution against congressional meddling in national security.

The Democratic leaders remain tied to an antiwar movement that repulses many moderate Republicans, lawmakers who most recently recoiled at the newspaper ad by attacking Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, ahead of his congressional testimony last week.

And those Democrats continue to be stymied by veteran GOP senators uncomfortable challenging the White House, which has skillfully used that unease to prevent Republican defections.

Just last week, Reid and other Senate Democrats talked optimistically of working with Republicans to overcome the partisan impasse that has scuttled war-related legislation.

The measure on troop rest, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), had garnered seven GOP votes in July, more than any other Democratic proposal to rein in the war. And since then, a number of Senate Republicans had expressed concerns about a lack of political progress in Iraq, despite the Bush administration’s reports of military gains.

But starting with Petraeus’ testimony last week, Democrats saw their momentum slip away.

Petraeus talked of progress and success in a way that previous commanders in Iraq had not.

“It froze everyone,” said Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, a Republican who has backed efforts to force a troop withdrawal. “I know the nervousness has not gone away. But I think hope was rekindled.”

Other senior officers followed, including Army Lt. Gen. Carter F. Ham, who led an infantry division in Iraq and now oversees operations for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Ham and a second three-star general met for an hour Wednesday in a Senate building with five GOP senators, including ones who had been considering supporting Webb’s measure. The two commanders forcefully outlined their case that the measure would mean longer deployments for some troops and a planning nightmare for the military.

Within hours, the generals were being cited in speeches on the Senate floor by senior Republicans including Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who had backed Webb’s amendment in July, and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, whom Democrats were hoping would join them.

“They are not politically motivated,” Warner told his Senate colleagues Wednesday. “They are motivated by what they have to do to be fair to those serving in Iraq today.”

Warner and Specter voted against the Webb measure.

While the military officers helped pull Republicans away from Democrats, the antiwar wing of the Democratic Party provided a push. Despite Reid’s recent talk of compromising with Republicans, he and other war critics -- in and out of the Senate -- have spent much of the year accusing Republicans of backing the president over the troops. And they worked with antiwar groups to attack GOP lawmakers in their home states.

That has taken a toll. Even some Senate Republicans voting with Democrats express bitterness at how Democrats have cast the debate.

“It’s just all politics all the time,” complained Smith. “This is all about teeing up the 2008 elections, and it has very little to do with governing.”

By the time ran its incendiary ad last week accusing Petraeus of betrayal in his assessment of the situation in Iraq, few Republicans had much interest in signing on to the Democratic antiwar effort.

“At the very moment that Democrats need to draw them to a majority, they drive them away with language that is hostile and angry,” said GOP pollster Frank Luntz. “That is not the approach that works. . . . The White House is lucky that it has opponents like MoveOn.”

The administration may also be fortunate that senior Republican senators such as Warner, Specter and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana are so reluctant to challenge the White House.

Although all three have criticized the conduct of the war, each has repeatedly refused to do anything legislatively that could compel the administration to change its course.

Warner said Wednesday that he did not want to force the president to veto legislation during war. Specter cautioned that the Senate should not try to manage the military.

And Lugar, a former chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, has repeatedly counseled that passing legislation is not the most effective way to change Iraq policy.

“The major contributions will be made by individual members to whom the administration may pay some attention,” Lugar said Thursday. “This is the way that a member may have an influence, which is not threatening, not confrontational.”

But as Democratic leaders sat down with reporters in Reid’s conference room Thursday, all they talked about was more confrontation.

“We are going to change the policy in this war,” said Assistant Senate Majority Leader Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “I hope it’s this month, but if not, the battle will continue.”

Hours later, Democrats mustered only 28 votes for a measure by Sen. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) to cut off funding by next summer for all but a limited number of military operations in Iraq.

The Democrats plan another vote today, on a measure to set a deadline for troop withdrawal. No one expects it will attract any substantial GOP support.