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Reid Treads Carefully on Iraq Votes

Senate Democratic leaders are taking a wait-and-see approach to handling divisions within their Caucus over how strongly to repudiate President Bush’s Iraq “surge” plan, hoping to avoid playing into GOP efforts to muddle the issue by forcing votes on multiple resolutions, aides said Tuesday.

Republican leaders have significantly stepped up their efforts to blunt the impact of the vote, ranging from plans to introduce several of their own alternatives supporting Bush’s overall prosecution of the war to painting the vote as a partisan ploy and challenging Democrats to vote on suspending funding for the war.

At press time Tuesday night, CNN reported that the White House and Congressional Democratic leaders had reached an agreement to create a bipartisan working group on Iraq that could head off a divisive floor fight on the issue.

Democratic leadership aides acknowledged Tuesday afternoon that a resolution by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) stands to garner significantly more support than the harsher denunciation of the surge strategy backed by Sens. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.).

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) on several occasions has argued that there is no substantive difference between the two resolutions, and top leadership aides privately have acknowledged that Democratic leaders would be comfortable moving forward with a single vote on the Warner resolution if it meant a strong bipartisan show of opposition.

But according to one aide, a number of Democrats — potentially including Biden and other presidential hopefuls, and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who is pushing for a suspension of funds for the war — “are not there yet” and Reid is hoping they will come around before next week’s vote.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), another presidential hopeful, on Tuesday proposed his own plan for Iraq, calling for the phased redeployment of all combat brigades out of Iraq by March 31, 2008. “Our troops have performed brilliantly in Iraq, but no amount of American soldiers can solve the political differences at the heart of somebody else’s civil war,” Obama said.

While neither Reid nor Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) has explicitly made a pitch to members or begun whipping for either resolution, Democrats privately said Reid’s statements are meant as a signal to Caucus members that he believes a strong show of bipartisanship is better than passing a strongly worded measure.

“It’s just a couple of words. Either way it’s a repudiation of the president’s plan,” one leadership aide argued. According to this source, while it appears unlikely that Republicans will actually end up filibustering the resolution, they are making a strong push to paint anything garnering less than 60 votes as a simple exercise in partisanship. Although it remains unclear how successful that messaging effort will be, the source said leadership is concerned it could help dampen the effect of the resolution.

“What if we have two resolutions that both get 58 [votes]? How would [the media] play that?” the aide questioned.

Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) echoed that argument Tuesday. “There may be three different resolutions that get over 50 votes. So which one is the sentiment of the Senate?” he asked. He also questioned the intentions of supporters of a nonbinding resolution and argued that if Democrats were serious they would bring legislation to the floor blocking funding for the surge. “I have a lot more respect for someone who just wants to cut off funds,” Lott said.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is working on his own resolution laying out benchmarks for continued support for the Iraq War, agreed with Lott, dismissing the resolutions as a ploy. “The reason they’re doing it is the message,” stated McCain, who added that the “more intellectually honest approach” would be to cut off funding for the war — a position he opposes.

Lott said that he assumed “we’ll have a vote to cut off funds,” but he left open the possibility that the proposal could come from either the handful of Democrats who have floated the notion or Republicans seeking to get Democrats on the record as supporting war funding.

“This is a horrible mistake to be passing a nonbinding resolution,” Lott said.

Though Lott said Senate GOP leaders were willing to let Republicans “vote their conscience,” he acknowledged that he was “out there scouting, trying to find out where everyone is” on the various proposals.

Blocking a vote could prove politically risky for Republicans. A Democratic leadership aide said that while Reid and other leaders are set on bringing a resolution to a vote, if Republicans block them they are prepared to cast the GOP in a familiar role — as obstructionists of the people’s business. It is easy “to make lemons into lemonade” if the GOP filibusters, the aide said.

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