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Democrats Hunting for GOP Defections on Iraq

By deftly directing public attention onto the majority party’s tussles over what to do about the Iraq War, Republicans on Capitol Hill have been content to let Democrats battle each other and largely avoid having to outline any alternative plans to the myriad that Democrats have floated over the past several weeks. [IMGCAP(1)]

But that could begin changing this week, as Democrats in the House and Senate look to use the same strategy to put pressure on Republicans to either support them or offer their own proposals for changing the course of a war that polls suggest has become increasingly unpopular to members of both parties.

Indeed, Republicans are mindful that they will need to add a little more substance to their rhetoric when the House Appropriations Committee sits down Thursday to mark up a highly controversial supplemental war spending bill that would set benchmarks for success in Iraq and then require redeployment and withdrawal of troops regardless of whether those benchmarks have been met.

Though it may be “a little too early to have a [GOP] plan set in stone,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), “the Appropriations Republicans will have an aggressive plan for the markup.”

Indeed, Jim Specht, spokesman for House Appropriations ranking member Jerry Lewis (R-Calif.), said his boss was still in talks with GOP leaders and committee members about “what should be the approach to this bill and what elements are going to deserve strong opposition or support.”

Part of the reason House Republicans haven’t gamed out their full opposition strategy, aides noted, is that the Democratic bill was not available to them until late Monday afternoon. At the very least, the GOP will push amendments to strike Democratic language requiring the president to begin removing all U.S. troops from combat in Iraq by August 2008 at the latest.

Still, the official GOP position in both the House and Senate is one that does not exactly sit well with many of the rank and file, given many Republicans expressed skepticism or opposition to President Bush’s plan to send more troops into Iraq to try to stem the violence in Baghdad.

“Unfortunately, our plan is out there. It’s Bush’s plan for the time being,” said one aide to a House GOP moderate.

Still, the aide said most moderates and other war skeptics are likely to stand united with Boehner in opposing the supplemental, primarily because House Democrats have alienated them even as they have tried to include provisions and funding for programs that moderates support.

“They’ve made it so much about the war that all these other things that are sweeteners are being lost in the mix,” said the aide. “They’re also not reaching across party lines to the [war critics] to say, ‘Hey, what will work for you and what might pick up some more [votes]?’”

However, GOP commitments to support the leadership are not completely firm. Republicans acknowledge that if the Democrats’ public relations offensive works, GOP Members may be tempted to jump ship and vote for the bill.

“In order to keep our numbers strong … Republicans have to do a good job of defining this bill as a bill that weakens our resolve, demoralizes our troops and sends the wrong message to terrorists,” said a senior House GOP aide. “But if we don’t then we could see those [defections] increase.”

Democrats, who could well lose the vote on the supplemental if no Republicans cross party lines, are armed with talking points in an effort both to score political points and, they hope, to put pressure on some wavering Republicans to break ranks with their leadership and support the supplemental.

“You can’t just give lip service to supporting the troops and then give the president everything he wants,” said one House Democratic leadership aide. “For the past four years the president has gotten everything he wants and look where we are.”

Plus, Democrats say their provisions setting “benchmarks” for a full Iraqi government takeover of operations not only mirror what the president laid out in January but also closely track the House GOP’s plan for overseeing the president’s new strategy.

“We’re going to hammer away at the point that the president set these benchmarks,” said the House Democratic leadership aide. “But benchmarks without enforcement are simply suggestions.”

Indeed, the House GOP plan to create a bipartisan committee to oversee the president’s benchmarks had no provision for forcing the administration to take the steps necessary to get Iraqis ready to fully take over.

To top it all off, Democrats are poised to attack Republicans who vote against the supplemental for opposing the $2.9 billion in additional funding for Hurricane Katrina victims, the $735 million for poor children’s health care, and the $4.3 billion for agriculture disaster aid, among other things.

Senate Republicans find themselves in a similar pickle, considering that Senate Democrats have been coalescing around a proposed resolution intended to force the president to redefine the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq from combat to support of the Iraqis.

When asked what Senate Republicans’ plan for Iraq would be, one top aide explained that the Conference’s position is to support Bush’s plan. “I don’t think we have a ‘new’ plan. We’re in the middle of it,” the aide said.

Of course, not everyone is completely sold on that plan. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) said last week that he was working to craft an alternative that could possibly unite Republicans.

“That’s being explored,” said Warner, though he cautioned that “at this point we do not have a definitive product in mind.”

Like most Senate Republicans, Warner, however, is sure he doesn’t like the Democratic plan.

“It’s not one that is consistent with the Constitution,” he said.

Besides several early stumbles, Senate Republicans have been remarkably successful in camouflaging their own divisions over the past few weeks.

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Senate Republican Conference Chairman Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) have used a three-pronged approach to keeping their party’s fractures out of the spotlight, aides said.

First, the two leaders have focused on Democrats’ own divisions. McConnell and Kyl also have shifted the debate away from Bush’s “surge” strategy — which is well under way at this point — and have recast the plan under the name of his new field commander, Gen. David Petraeus, arguing that he be given a chance to do his work instead of being “micromanaged.”

Finally, the GOP leaders have dared Democrats to cut off funding for deployed troops, saying that is the only way to end the war.

One GOP leadership aide acknowledged that Democrats “are trying to put the onus on us” to provide a proposal to end the war but predicted McConnell and Kyl likely will not deviate much from what has been a winning strategy so far.

According to this aide, Republicans’ three-tiered message “resonates with the public and it even resonates with our guys who aren’t necessarily in step with the White House. And it brings everybody into the fold with us.”

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