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Murtha Lobbies Liberals on Iraq

Even as Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) looks to gain support from his liberal Democratic colleagues for his latest proposal to begin drawing down the Iraq War, House leaders appear to be moving away from the plan, looking instead to focus on the passage of numerous other war-related measures this week.

“We have a limited amount of time to accomplish quite a few bills we want to pass,” said a House leadership aide, who asked not be identified, adding that no final decision had been made as of Friday afternoon.

In addition to a slew of major bills expected on the House floor in the final days before the monthlong August recess begins — such as children’s health insurance, energy, and lobbying and ethics reform — the House is slatted to take up the fiscal 2008 Defense appropriations bill as well as several stand-alone measures tied to the Iraq War, such as mandating rest periods for military personnel.

“Before heading to their districts in August, Democrats and Republicans will have an opportunity to let their constituents know where they stand on the war in Iraq,” said Nadeam Elshami, a spokesman for Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).

But the Murtha proposal, which would be introduced as an amendment to the Defense spending bill, also has drawn objections from members of the Progressive Caucus — nearly 70 of whom signed on to a recent letter to President Bush refusing to provide any additional funds in fiscal 2008 for the Iraq War, except for the withdrawal of troops.

Under the Pennsylvania lawmaker’s newest proposal, the withdrawal of troops from Iraq would begin within 60 days, but unlike previous plans, there is no deadline for when that process must be completed. Murtha said last week he hoped to draw the support of Congressional Republicans and the White House with the measure.

But progressive lawmakers have criticized that proposal, arguing that it would diminish Democratic efforts to end the war, including a measure approved in early July that would have mandated the withdrawal of troops be completed by spring 2008.

“I don’t think we should retreat from what we’ve done before,” Rep. Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) said.

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), who co-chairs the Progressive Caucus with Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), said Thursday that liberal Members had begun negotiations about the proposal, although she declined to detail those meetings.

“We’re in discussions right now,” Lee said, adding: “I don’t want to go backwards on this.”

Murtha, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense, also is slated to meet with progressive lawmakers Monday, Woolsey said, but she raised doubts that any measure without a specific end date would receive the support of her colleagues: “If they want our vote, they need a date,” she said.

The Pennsylvania lawmaker, who also is expected to address the full Democratic Caucus at its weekly meeting on Tuesday, said, “I’ll explain it to them and we’ll see what happens.”

Republicans, who have remained largely unified against earlier Democratic withdrawal proposals, deemed Murtha’s movement an encouraging step.

“Hopefully that’s a sign that Democrats are starting to walk away from the anti-war activist groups and start supporting the troops,” said Brian Kennedy, spokesman for House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio).

Nonetheless, Murtha said he expects the House will take up his trio of amendments — “It’s better than 50/50 we’ll do the amendments,” he said — which also include a measure to close the Guantanamo Bay detention facility, as well as a proposal he cited as the “most important”: to set specific training requirements and limitations for military personnel deployed to war zones.

“When [Members] go home they want to be able to vote on something,” Murtha said, and later added: “We’ll have the votes on whatever we decide to do.”

In addition, Murtha asserted that the House must consider a continuing resolution for the current Defense spending bill, stating that he believes it is unlikely the new measure will be completed before the fiscal year ends Sept. 30.

In the meantime, Democrats intend to move several Iraq-related measure to the House floor this week, including a bill sponsored by Rep. Ellen Tauscher (D-Calif.) that would mandate specific interludes for troops between deployments and another by Rep. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) that would require President Bush to issue a plan to Congress within 60 days on reducing the number of troops in Iraq.

“Clearly from a troop standpoint … this is the kind of message they want to hear,” Democratic Caucus Vice Chairman John Larson (Conn.) said, adding that the Tauscher measure could be used to lead into troop withdrawal proposals. “This keeps the steady drumbeat” on Iraq, he added.

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