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In War Debate, Levin Is Man in the Middle

As Democratic leaders have ratcheted up their rhetoric on the Iraq War in preparation for a veto showdown with the president, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (Mich.) — one of the most influential, and consequently most quoted, Democrats — continues to strike a more pragmatic tone that has elicited cringes from the left and delight from the right.

Levin is arguably as anti-Iraq War as they come, having last year sponsored one of the first measures intended to draw down U.S. involvement in the region, but his baldfaced honesty about the fact that Democrats likely will lose the first few rounds in their fight with the White House on the issue has often appeared to muddy Democratic attempts to frame the debate on the war.

While Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) have been daring President Bush to veto the $124 billion emergency war spending bill by accusing him of preferring his own “failed strategy” over giving money to the troops, Levin has openly acknowledged that Democrats will have to back down and send the president a bill that funds the war without many strings attached.

And while it may appear that Levin is at odds with his party leadership — an idea trumpeted by Republicans — the chairman on Wednesday flatly rejected that notion.

“If there’s any division here, it’s not among Democrats,” Levin said. “The division would be between Secretary [of Defense Robert] Gates and the vice president of the United States. The vice president has said that somehow or another this debate is undermining troops. Robert Gates … is saying this is a healthy debate that is supporting what we’re trying to do there. And he says it’s had a positive impact probably in terms of communicating to the Iraqis that there has to be a political settlement.”

Still, Levin’s rhetoric of late has certainly left him open to questions.

“We’re not going to vote to cut funding, period,” Levin said April 15 in response to a question on party divisions on Iraq and Reid’s surprise co-sponsorship of a bill to end funding for combat missions in Iraq by next spring. “We shouldn’t cut funding for the troops.”

At other times, Levin has downplayed the imminent veto showdown over the supplemental — which likely will be cleared by the Senate today — by publicly describing Democrats’ plans for the post-veto measures they will send to the president.

“After the first bill, there’s a number of options. Either we can keep the benchmarks [for the Iraqi government] part of the bill without saying that the troops must begin to come back within four months. If that doesn’t work and the president vetoes because of that, and he will, then that part of it is removed because we’re going to fund the troops,” Levin said in an appearance this month on ABC’s “This Week.”

Indeed, Republicans have been using Levin’s statements over the past month as evidence, they say, that Democrats are not only split on what to do about the war but also engaged in pointless political theater that is delaying funding for troops in the field.

“Harry Reid has said he’s adamantly opposed to any funding for the troops,” said Vice President Cheney on CBS’ “Face the Nation” on April 16. “On the other hand, Carl Levin … has indicated that they definitely do want to pass funding for the troops, even if they don’t have the votes to override the president’s veto.”

One Senate GOP leadership aide said Levin has made it easy for Republicans to “exploit” his remarks “because it’s so obvious” that he disagrees with Reid. But the aide added that Levin tends to strike a tone that probably helps soften the Democrats’ rhetoric on the war.

“I think you’ve got Reid speaking to the far left and Levin speaking to the rest of America,” the GOP aide said.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas) agreed.

“Notwithstanding that I disagree with him on some of the tactics [regarding the supplemental], he’s shown a lot of responsibility in his temperate language, unlike the Majority Leader,” he said.

In fact, Senate Democrats were reluctant to criticize Levin on the record for his remarks, in part because he has so vigorously defended Reid’s recent comments that the Iraq War already has been “lost.”

“Harry Reid has said there’s no military solution,” Levin explained Wednesday of Reid’s comment. “He’s absolutely right, and that’s the big point that he’s been making all along and that I’ve been making all along.”

However, several Senate Democratic aides said that Levin’s comments have not always been helpful, though they defended the chairman as a thoughtful speaker whose nuanced observations were not interpreted correctly.

Democratic Senators, including Reid himself, also defended Levin.

“Sen. Levin … is one of the principal architects of the bipartisan Iraq policy to responsibly end the conflict in Iraq. … As we work to press the president to change course in Iraq, his leadership and expertise will continue to be of vital benefit not only to me, but to also to our troops, our caucus and our country,” Reid said.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) said Levin has been doing exactly what he should be doing — torpedoing the notion that Democrats would attempt to cut off funding for the war.

“Sen. Levin is being very practical. This is the way it’s going to work,” said Nelson.

Nelson said Levin’s repeated statements that Democrats will eventually have to give the president money for the troops with little or no strings attached “sends the right message to the troops that the funding is not going to be withheld.”

Nelson added, “That’s the primary objective here. The rest of it is theater.”

Still, Levin has not been immune to attacks from the left.

“How is it that Cheney can enlist the likes of Carl Levin in a policy built on the backs of American troops?” asked Ray McGovern in an April 21 opinion piece for the Detroit Free Press.

McGovern, a former CIA analyst with the group Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity, continued, “What would prompt Levin to undermine his own majority leader? Levin was challenged on that point last Sunday at the University of Michigan. He replied that cutting funding for the war is what [conservative commentator] Rush Limbaugh wants and would play into Bush’s hands. The Democrats would probably lose a battle over funding and end up looking ‘really bad,’ added Levin.”

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