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House Not Letting Go of Iraq Debate

With Democrats in both chambers having failed so far in repeated attempts to force the Bush administration’s hand on Iraq, House leaders will return their attention to the war this week in an effort to keep a spotlight on the conflict in the final weeks before the August recess.

Although the House will not take up funding for the war itself until September, several Democratic sources said the chamber most likely will move a measure this week that would ban permanent military bases in Iraq.

Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.), who chairs the Appropriations Sub- committee on Defense, said late last week he also will propose three war-specific amendments to his fiscal 2008 spending bill, which is expected to reach the House floor next week.

The Pennsylvania lawmaker said he will offer a proposal on the floor that would again seek to end the war and require the redeploy- ment of military personnel — echoing the Democratic-backed bill that passed in the House earlier this month, but failed in a similar effort in the Senate — although the measure will be unlikely to include a specific deadline.

“We’re trying to stay away from that and still get the thing done,” Murtha said Wednesday. Although his amendment most likely will require troop withdrawal to begin within 60 days, Murtha said he could consider altering that requirement before introducing the amendment.

“We want to pass something that hopefully [President Bush will] sign but we haven’t got it yet,” Murtha said.

Earlier in the week, Murtha had said he would not mirror requirements from the earlier Democratic-sponsored bill that would have required a full withdrawal by spring 2008, calling that time frame “unrealistic.”

“It’s unrealistic because the footprint is so much bigger than I thought,” Murtha said, but added nonetheless: “You’ve got to get out because there’s nothing to indicate it’s getting better.”

In addition, Murtha will propose the closure of the Guantanamo Bay detention facility within 180 days, and will once again seek specific training requirements and limitations for military personnel deployed to war zones.

Whether such a package will draw Republican support — only four Republicans voted in favor of the most recent withdrawal plan — remains to be seen, although even Murtha acknowledged it is unlikely to do so.

“I don’t think you’ll get a lot of Republican support until after their [2008] primaries,” Murtha asserted.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a key moderate who has sought to find a way out of Iraq but has so far refused to vote for Democratic withdrawal timelines, predicted that Republicans will stay relatively united through September so long as Democrats continue to force stark choices demanding withdrawal.

“I think it’s a very political position the Democrats are taking,” Castle said of the strategy to force repeated votes on Iraq. “The votes have been cast, they are already in the record.”

Castle said Democrats could get a substantial number of Republicans on board if they were to bring forward a package built around the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommendations, which do not include dates for withdrawal but call for moving American troops over time into a support-and-training role for the Iraqi military rather than in frontline combat. Castle also noted the proposal put forward by Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) that calls for the Bush administration to draft plans shifting the Iraq strategy by October.

“There are many of us who believe there are steps that could be taken to support the government there and then start withdrawing troops,” Castle said. “It’s very disappointing that the Democratic leadership just persists in absolute votes on immediate withdrawal.”

But Democrats have yet to reach out to moderate Republicans in the House to forge a consensus policy.

“I think you would get a very different vote on that and maybe the White House would pay attention,” Castle said.

In the meantime, House Democratic leaders are expected to meet Monday to finalize which Iraq-related measures, including the ban on permanent bases, could move to the floor this week.

“The House expects to have votes on Iraq in the next two weeks,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who has sponsored a bill that would ban permanent military bases in Iraq, said in a statement: “A clear statement of policy, as the Iraq Study Group recommended, that the U.S. does not intend a long-term or permanent military presence in Iraq would send a strong signal to the Iraqi people and the world, and help support our goals of handing over responsibility for security and public safety to Iraqi forces.”

“Members of Congress have differing opinions about Iraq, but there is widespread agreement on both sides of the aisle that U.S. occupation should not be permanent, and that is a good place to start,” she added.

Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.), a vocal proponent of ending the war who successfully pushed House leaders to allow a vote on the immediate withdrawal of troops earlier this year, said Thursday that while he would like to see war-related bills move to the floor, there is limited time in the final two weeks before the August recess.

“Logistically I’m not sure how much time we have to do appropriations bills and a whole bunch of other things,” he said.

Along with the 70 other Members, drawn largely from the Progressive and Out of Iraq caucuses, the Massachusetts lawmaker issued a letter Thursday to President Bush refusing to provide any additional funds in fiscal 2008 for the Iraq War except for the withdrawal of troops.

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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