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Brakes Thrown on Iraq Fight

With a vote on one or more nonbinding resolutions opposing President Bush’s decision to boost troop levels in Iraq likely a week away, Senate Democratic leaders are expected to use the delay to push back against tough White House rhetoric and attempt to build a bipartisan coalition on the issue, aides said Monday.

A senior Democratic leadership aide said Monday that while no talks with Republicans who oppose Bush’s Iraq strategy have been scheduled, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) likely will “extend some olive branches” later in the week as the chamber moves closer to next week’s vote.

Republicans are expected to oppose any effort by Reid to bring the minimum-wage debate to a close before Thursday. Because of that, a plan to begin debate on a resolution sponsored by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) will be put off until sometime next week, Democratic aides said.

Democrats are deeply skeptical of GOP indications that they would like to use all of the time allowed to them procedurally before wrapping up this week’s debate on minimum wage.

“What is the White House up to?” asked Reid spokesman Jim Manley. “Are they stalling for time while they craft another resolution?”

If Republicans use all the time available to them under Senate rules on the minimum-wage bill, debate on the Iraq resolution likely would begin at the end of this week at the earliest.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has said repeatedly that he does not want to block a vote on an Iraq resolution, but that he will not allow a vote on the Democrats’ Iraq resolution without an agreement to also have several other votes on GOP-sponsored resolutions less critical of the president.

“His main concern is that Members get a chance to vote on their resolutions and that it’s not a one-shot deal,” said McConnell spokesman Don Stewart.

Without separate votes on each resolution, Stewart noted that procedurally it is impossible to have a vote on a complete substitute resolution, or a resolution that would entirely replace the language of the Democrats’ resolution. Senate rules are such that the section of the resolution that includes “findings” must be approved separately from the resolution’s declarative statements.

“It makes it a lot more complicated. It muddles the message completely,” said Stewart of the possibility of Republicans having to offer separate substitute amendments for each section of the resolution.

But Manley said the votes on the two sections could move in tandem and that Democrats are prepared to allow votes on several competing resolutions.

Further complicating Reid’s efforts, however, is the fact that Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) — who, along with Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is one of the leaders of a bipartisan group of lawmakers who have proposed an alternative resolution to the Levin-Hagel-Biden measure — has thus far refused calls for negotiations prior to the floor debate.

In a memo sent Thursday to Biden, Hagel, Levin and Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) — a second GOP sponsor — Warner and Nelson rejected a request for talks from Biden, arguing that they “believe that the issues set forth in [the resolution] should remain as filed and that any additions, deletions or changes should occur as a consequence of the will of the Senate, working in ‘open’ session, during floor debate and consideration.”

An aide to Warner said Monday that the Virginia lawmaker’s position had not changed as of yet and that he believed both measures should come before the entire chamber.

Reid and other members of leadership also will have to address the White House’s efforts to paint the resolution as detrimental to troops serving in Iraq. Over the past several days administration officials including Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have argued that any opposition to Bush’s plan would end up emboldening the insurgency in Iraq. And while rank-and-file Democrats said that approach —which in past years caused significant heartburn among some moderate and conservative members of the party — is falling flat, a leadership aide said Reid is expected to push back over the course of the week.

In a floor speech Monday Reid charged that administration attacks are “beneath any administration official or Member of Congress,” calling them “dangerous rhetoric motivated more by politics at home than events in Iraq.”

On the other side of the Capitol, Democratic leaders moved ahead with efforts to focus attention on Iraq, but nonetheless continued to maintain that the chamber will hold off on any action on a similar resolution until the Senate completes work on the issue.

“Our thinking on this is that we want a strong bipartisan vote in the Senate, which will help us achieve the same goal here in the House,” said a Democratic leadership aide, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

But even as Democrats aim to utilize the potential momentum of the Senate resolution, House leaders, while suggesting the chamber will take up a similar resolution, have yet to specify whether that will mirror the Senate resolution exactly.

“Democrats have been incredibly clear about this,” one Democratic operative, who asked not to be named, said of the decision to wait on the Senate’s action. “How we get there is less important than what’s actually said.”

Democratic leadership also pushed ahead in recent days with what the leadership aide called “a coordinated effort to step-up [our] message on Iraq.”

Those efforts include a Congressional delegation led by Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to Iraq as well as a policy address Friday by House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), in which he criticized Bush’s latest Iraq strategy while reiterating that Democrats intend to hold dozens of committee hearings before developing specific policies on the war.

Pelosi, who returned from her visit to Iraq, Pakistan and Afghanistan on Monday along with Reps. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), Tom Lantos (D-Calif.), Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), John Murtha (D-Pa.), Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) and David Hobson (R-Ohio), is scheduled to review the CODEL this afternoon, although specific details were not available.

In a statement issued Friday during her visit to Iraq, Pelosi reiterated Democratic calls to shift responsibility for security to Iraqis and to redeploy U.S. military personnel.

“In meetings with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalizad [sic], and senior U.S. military officers, including multi-national commander General George Casey, we stressed our belief that it is well past time for the Iraqis to take primary responsibility for the security of their nation,” Pelosi said. “The delegation’s view is that American forces should quickly begin to transition from a combat role to one focused on training, counter-terrorism, force protection, and controlling Iraq’s borders.”

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