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Iraq Moves Unclear

Even as House Democrats said Tuesday they will continue to emphasize troop preparedness in the upcoming supplemental spending bill to fund the Iraq War, Democratic leaders appeared to be backing away from efforts that would drastically reduce troop deployments.

And in the Senate on Tuesday, leaders of both parties called a temporary truce in their increasingly bitter fight over the Iraq War, providing Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) an opportunity to refocus the Democratic Caucus’ messaging efforts as well as to build some sort of consensus on how to proceed.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.), Armed Services Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.) and Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) late Tuesday afternoon tried to address their Democratic colleagues’ concerns about how they intend to handle the expected $100 billion Iraq War spending bill, including putting the onus on President Bush to ensure troops are prepared and equipped before being deployed.

“We have to raise the standard of accountability,” Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) said following a meeting of House Democrats, adding that the criteria would be applied to both Bush and the Iraqi government under the Democratic proposal.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said additional funds could be dedicated to training and equipment for those troops, including National Guard personnel, who are assigned to the war.

“We’re talking about focusing more of the funding on readiness,” Pelosi said. The Speaker did not indicate whether those funds would be shifted from other areas in the spending bill or if overall spending would be increased.

While the proposal echoes a plan unveiled by Murtha last week via an anti-war Web site — that plan would use Congressional control over federal funds to require readiness guidelines are closely followed, and make it more difficult for Bush to execute his current war strategy, including an increase in troop levels — Democratic leaders insisted the strategy does not include more stringent rules.

“All we’re saying is follow the policy that’s in place,” Pelosi said.

But Democrats did not indicate how they plan to enforce those guidelines — stating only that they will not cut off funding for troops in Iraq — asserting that the majority will continue to discuss those possibilities. The spending bill is expected in full committee next week and on the House floor the week of March 12.

“You’ll see that as the language becomes apparent,” Emanuel said. However, an aide to the Speaker suggested that the bill could include provisions requiring the president to sign off each time existing guidelines for readiness are waived, something the commander in chief is not currently required to do.

“We would like to see the war ended, but it’s the president’s war,” Pelosi spokesman Brendan Daly said.

Democratic leaders also stressed a desire to refocus efforts on fighting the broader war on terror in Afghanistan. “If we are truly going to defeat terrorism, we have to refocus on Afghanistan,” Pelosi said.

Aides said the House Democratic Caucus may hold a second meeting this week to further discuss the proposed spending bill.

Following the Tuesday meeting several Democratic lawmakers said they approved of the presentation by Murtha, but were careful to stress that they had yet to see a written copy of any proposal.

“I’m impressed with what I heard,” Rep. Ellen Tauscher (Calif.), chairwoman of the centrist New Democrat Coalition. While declining to discuss details, Tauscher said the plan would establish “significant metrics” for the president to meet.

“I’m definitely open to Mr. Murtha’s proposal,” echoed Rep. Mike Michaud (D-Maine). Michaud acknowledged several of his colleagues in the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition have opposed the plan, adding that he believes it is unlikely the group will take an official position. “We’ll wait to see the details. This is the first chance we’ve really had to talk about it as a Caucus.”

Despite polls showing continued public support for Congress forcing Bush’s hand on his prosecution of the Iraq War, Democrats entered the week divided over how strongly to oppose the White House and without a clear plan for pursuing that opposition.

Senior Senate Democratic aides said they hope the truce with Senate Republicans will give Reid and other leaders time to bring their Caucus together and to develop a consensus proposal on how to move forward.

Under pressure from the families of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack victims as well as members of their own parties, Reid and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) agreed Tuesday to move a pending Sept. 11 security bill free of Iraq amendments.

“Both sides are starting the 9/11 bill with the feeling that it will not be a repository for Iraq amendments,” McConnell said Tuesday following the Republican Conference’s weekly luncheon. Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff urged Republicans at the luncheon to focus their efforts on passing a clean bill.

The decision likely pushes off a resumption of hostilities over Iraq until the end of next week at the earliest, but Reid told reporters Tuesday that he expects to make another attempt at passing some sort of legislation relating to Iraq. “I hope in the near future to be able to offer [legislation] on behalf of the Democratic Caucus” addressing Iraq, Reid said.

Senate Democratic leadership aides said Tuesday that it remains unclear when, or how, Democrats will take up Iraq again. According to these sources, during their weekly luncheon Democrats discussed a plan championed by Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) to move a new, narrower war authorization. But members emerged from the meeting with no final decision on whether the Caucus would back such a plan, and several lawmakers — most notably conservative Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.) — said they would remain noncommittal until they have a chance to review the specifics of the proposal.

Despite the continuing uncertainty over the reauthorization strategy within their own party, Democratic leaders appear intent on moving forward with at least some sort of restrictions on how the White House conducts the war and already have begun ramping up their political machine to pressure wavering Republicans.

Specifically, as Democrats were heading into their luncheon, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee sent an e-mail penned by Levin to its supporters on his proposal to rework the 2002 war authorization. Although the e-mail did not include a fundraising pitch, it did ask recipients to sign a petition the DSCC is circulating calling on lawmakers to take up the proposal.

While Reid was able to peel off several Republicans during the fight over a nonbinding resolution, it is unclear whether he will be able to convince any of his GOP colleagues to back a binding bill that limits Bush’s authority. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) — who has twice broken with his party over Iraq this year — said Tuesday he would oppose any effort to rewrite the war authorization. “It certainly doesn’t have my support. I’m not interested in looking back,” Coleman said, adding that “I doubt it’s going to get very much support from many of my [GOP] colleagues.”

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.), who, like Coleman, is expecting a strong challenge to his re-election in 2008, declined to discuss the issue, telling reporters Tuesday morning that he would withhold judgment until he saw an actual proposal from Levin.

Susan Davis and Emily Pierce contributed to this report.

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