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Reid Looks for Edge on Iraq

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.) will huddle with his fellow Democrats today to gauge support for reworking the Iraq War authorization — and to bring a more united front to the debate with Republicans, Senate aides said Monday.

Although a number of top Democrats — including presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Biden (Del.) and Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) — have endorsed the plan and began publicly pushing for it during the Presidents Day recess, it has not yet been presented to the full Democratic Caucus, making it unclear whether Reid could even muster a majority of support within his own party.

Today’s weekly Caucus luncheon marks the first time Reid will be able to meet with his rank-and-file membership to discuss the issue following the surprise announcement of the reauthorization strategy more than a week ago.

Reid spokesman Jim Manley reiterated Monday that the Majority Leader has not yet decided to pursue a new authorization. According to Manley, while “obviously the authorization is outdated and needs to be reformed,” Reid will not decide whether to pursue a full-blown reauthorization until after he has met with Caucus members today.

Reid — despite polls showing Americans remain unhappy with President Bush’s plan to boost troop levels and his own claims of victory following a rare Saturday vote earlier this month on a nonbinding Iraq resolution — finds himself in a difficult position politically this week.

Republicans went into the Presidents Day recess on a relative high note thanks to the House GOP leadership’s success in limiting defections on the resolution to only 17 Members. GOP leaders also have been successful in amplifying divisions between Democrats’ anti-war wing led by Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania and the bulk of the party’s lawmakers who oppose the president’s handling of the war but are fearful of moving to cut off funding for the conflict.

Republicans have used those competing interests to paint Democrats as being fractured and unable to settle on any sort of a substantive plan.

According to several sources familiar with the debate, there is mounting pressure on Reid from within his own party to avoid starting the debate this week. Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Chairman Joe Lieberman (ID-Conn.) on Monday called on lawmakers to not turn this week’s bill implementing the 9/11 commission’s recommendations into a political grudge match over Iraq. Similarly, families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks wrote Monday to McConnell and Reid urging them to avoid mixing the politically charged debate over Iraq with the 9/11 bill.

Several Democratic aides also expressed frustration privately with the decision by Biden and Levin to announce their desire to reauthorize the war during the recess — thus increasing pressure on Reid to take it up during the 9/11 debate. A clean bill “would really be a win-win situation for all of us,” one Democratic aide said, since both parties could claim victories.

Reid spokesman Manley said the two leaders are having ongoing discussions over whether Iraq will come up during the 9/11 debate and that a decision likely will wait until after both parties hold their luncheons today.

Manley also dismissed suggestions of divisions within the Democratic Party, arguing that “there is one thing all Democrats are united on and that is the absolute need to change course in Iraq.”

But privately, Democratic aides argued that divisions have arisen, though not along substantive lines so much as over how best to proceed. Many Senate Democrats have supported much of Reid’s political strategy over the past two years because of his slow and often-methodical approach to messaging and political trench warfare, which has allowed ample time for the Caucus to hash out internal differences.

For instance, Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were able to defeat Bush’s Social Security proposal in large part because they kept the focus on what both liberal and conservative members of their party could agree on — opposition to privatizing the program. Similarly on Iraq, Reid and Pelosi have maintained loyalty and a unified voice over the past two years by keeping their focus on a general sense that Bush has failed in his prosecution of the Iraq War.

And while Democrats acknowledge that they must produce their own proposals now that they are in the majority, that process has moved too quickly and no consensus position has been fully developed.

A GOP leadership aide agreed, arguing that “There’s nothing for us to do. We just react to whatever proposal they’re putting out today.”

Senate Republican Conference spokesman Ryan Loskarn said Democrats largely have boxed themselves in over the past few weeks.

“Democrats are in a tailspin over Iraq funding. They are facing serious division within their ranks over troop funding and it has become impossible to keep that fact under wraps. The further along Congress gets in the Iraq debate the more difficult it gets for Democrat leadership to refuse a vote on funding support,” Loskarn said.

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