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Members to Revisit Iraq Conflict

With the Defense appropriations bill on the House floor today, Republicans and Democrats will renew their public relations battle over the future of American operations in Iraq, even as both parties face some internal disagreement on the issue.

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) will propose an amendment to the Defense bill today that calls on the Bush administration to provide a written “strategy for success” in Iraq to Congress within 30 days.

In the meantime, Republican Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.) is working with a handful of lawmakers from both parties on a resolution that calls for American forces to begin withdrawing from Iraq sometime in 2006. Jones said the final touches should be put on the measure today, and it will be unveiled at a press conference Thursday morning.

Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) has worked closely on the effort, and Jones expects it to attract the support of additional Republicans — a significant point given that GOP leaders have criticized Democrats in the past for calling for withdrawal from Iraq.

At his weekly press briefing Tuesday, Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) reiterated his criticism of the idea of setting a time frame for withdrawal.

“I think setting a time schedule … undermines our efforts to fight the war on terror,” DeLay said. “The war is going to take a long time, but we are not going to play politics with it. We are focused on it and we are going to win it.”

Republican Rep. Ron Paul (Texas) has already signed on to Jones’ proposal, and the North Carolinian has also had discussions with GOP Reps. Howard Coble (N.C.) and Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), though neither had decided to sign on as of Tuesday.

Coble, who made news in January when he said that the United States should at least consider withdrawing from Iraq, admitted that the Republican leadership’s likely opposition to Jones’ bill would be a factor in his decision.

“I don’t casually dismiss that,” Coble said.

Gilchrest, meanwhile, said that he would need to see the final version of Jones’ proposal before he agreed to support it. But he added that the idea was good because it had sparked “greater debate” about U.S. presence in Iraq.

Gilchrest said that criticism from his own party wouldn’t influence his decision.

“I was a grunt Marine infantryman shot through the chest in Vietnam,” he said, adding that he saw several parallels between America’s involvement in that conflict and the current one.

Across the aisle, House Democrats, after months of virtual silence on the subject, have decided to turn up the heat again on the Bush administration for its policies in Iraq.

At the same time, however, Democrats remain divided — just as they have been for more than a year — on how to press Republicans and the Bush administration to end the conflict.

“Some within our Caucus want to go from A to D,” said one Democratic Member, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “For many of us who supported the president’s resolution, we have to go from A to B to C to D.”

Pelosi today will try to bridge the different views in the Caucus by offering her amendment to the Defense bill. She also will lay out a specific set of criteria to be included in that strategy, including the number of troops needed, the status of Iraqi security forces and their readiness and goals for political stability within the next two years.

“Pelosi recognizes that this is an important issue, but also an opportunity for Democrats to demonstrate leadership,” said a senior Democratic aide. “Obviously, she recognizes there are strong feelings in the Caucus about it, but also she’s showing a real recognition for the growing unease in the country about” the conflict.

At a tense leaders’ lunch Tuesday, Members spent two hours discussing the Democratic approach to the war and how best for the Caucus to proceed, both in action and in message.

Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), ranking member on Armed Services, told Members they cannot keep quiet anymore.

“They didn’t spent three days to plan for the aftermath,” Skelton told his colleagues. “It’s taken three years. I am deeply concerned about what’s happening in Iraq.”

Republicans said Tuesday that they doubted Pelosi’s amendment would have much impact on the progress of the Defense bill.

“That bill’s got a lot of momentum — about $363 billion worth,” said Appropriations Committee spokesman John Scofield.

Beyond the action on Pelosi’s amendment, several Members say they will become more outspoken about the conflict and a need for an end-game strategy.

As part of that, Abercrombie and Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio) are signing onto Jones’ bill calling for a troop withdrawal. Kucinich said in order for the bill to have legs, it must be bipartisan just as the decision to authorize the war was.

“I think there is a desire on the part of Members of Congress to find a place of consensus,” Kucinich said. “We need some statement, some plan that we can unite as many Members of Congress around as possible. That’s what Neil Abercrombie, Walter Jones, Ron Paul and I have come together on.”

Kucinich said the measure, to be introduced in the coming days, will focus on bringing the troops home without “finger pointing or blame or acrimony.”

Separate from the resolution, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.) said Tuesday she is helping lead a charge among Members to “raise our voices louder in a more concerted way” and call on the president to bring home the troops. Lee said Congress has been “too quiet” in recent months on the situation, and because of that she is “trying to engage the entire Congress in the debate.”

“The American people are much clearer with regard to the fact that they want our young men and women home,” she said.

Lee, who last week offered a pro-withdrawal amendment in the International Relations Committee, said Bush must be pressed to develop a plan to bring back American forces. She said too many troops have died, too much money has been spent and wasted and too much misinformation has been disseminated about the conflict.

Rep. Joseph Crowley (D-N.Y.) said he expected many Democratic Members to continue to press for “a plan for success” and insist that the Bush administration provide that strategy to Congress. He said the time is now for Democrats to speak out.

“What’s really registering with people more and more is that people are dying,” Crowley said.

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