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Fissures Remain on Iraq Deal

A new round of bipartisan negotiations on an Iraq War spending bill this week will be complicated by fissures in both parties between pragmatists looking to cut a deal and move on to other issues and partisans gearing up for more confrontation.

Firmly in the pragmatist camp are House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) and Senators in both parties who want to forge a deal on a spending bill through September that would tie reconstruction aid to the Iraqi government’s meeting benchmarks for political progress, but would leave out timelines for troop withdrawal. Hoyer has noted that several other defense measures will soon be coming down the pike where those battles could be waged.

But that talk of compromise appears to fall short of Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) repeated comments that Democrats are committed to ending the war and potentially risks losing a significant number of liberal House Democrats and disappointing Democratic grass-roots supporters who are pushing for the party to aggressively confront President Bush. Presidential candidate and former Sen. John Edwards (D-N.C.) is among those calling on Democrats to continue to send bills with withdrawal dates to the president’s desk despite his vetoes.

Two of Pelosi’s lieutenants — Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) and Appropriations subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.) — have floated the possibility of a short-term spending bill instead that would keep the Bush administration on a short leash, even though such a bill is strongly opposed by Republicans and all but dismissed by Senate Democratic leaders.

Obey and other House leaders appear to be operating on two tracks — one of negotiations with the White House to see if a compromise can be reached, and a second track focused on ensuring quick House passage of a new bill with Democratic votes.

A House Democratic aide said that while everything “is in the very early stages,” there isn’t much expectation that the White House will be willing to compromise, so the second track appears more likely. Any bill without a timeline for withdrawal may need to be short-term or risk losing the votes of liberals, although House aides note that no specific strategy has been agreed upon and the situation remains fluid.

“The next steps in the House’s effort on the war are still being discussed by the leadership,” said Hoyer spokeswoman Stacey Farnen Bernards. “The leadership in our Caucus are united in bringing the war to a successful conclusion in the interest of our nation’s security.”

A spokesman for a liberal Democrat said that Pelosi is “in a pickle.” She gets respect from liberals because it’s clear that she wants to end the war, but liberals don’t want to vote for a long-term spending bill without timelines. A short-term bill, Murtha and others have postulated, would put pressure on wobbly Republicans in the middle of the summer to abandon the president.

But Senate Democratic leaders have remained cool to the idea, which would tie up the Senate for weeks and threaten the passage of much of the rest of the Democratic agenda. A senior Democratic aide said the proposal to fund the war for two months is unlikely to see any serious debate in the Senate, particularly given the chamber’s slower pace and tight vote margins. “That’s the reality [Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.)] has to deal with,” the aide said, adding that any House proposal to limit the scope of funding is “unlikely to get serious traction over here.”

Instead, whatever House bill passes could merely be starter fodder for substantially different compromise legislation.

Although Reid has launched a coordinated political assault on Senate Republicans and the White House for Bush’s veto of the supplemental, he and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) also are working with a small bipartisan group of Senators, headed up by Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), with the likely outcome a set of binding benchmarks on the Iraqis tied to reconstruction aid that could garner a veto-proof majority.

Republicans are increasingly open to the idea of penalizing the Iraqis to make them accountable for political failures, and several Republicans have voiced their anger that the sclerotic Iraqi parliament plans a two-month recess without having completed work on the key political problems in the country, including oil-revenue sharing.

But the idea of a deal on binding benchmarks for the Iraqis has yet to be endorsed by House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), who has given several hawkish floor speeches on the war painting Democrats as surrendering to al-Qaida and has been unwilling to discuss any compromise in public.

But the backing of binding benchmarks by Blunt, as well as House Republican Conference Chairman Adam Putnam (Fla.), reflects the growing concerns among members of the Conference about the lack of political progress in Iraq.

John Stanton contributed to this report.

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