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Democrats Face ‘Balancing Act’ on Iraq

With long-awaited reports on the political and military situation in Iraq looming on the Congressional horizon, Senate Democrats find themselves feeling uncertain in their approach to the Iraq War, even as the chamber’s Republicans appear much more comfortable supporting the continuation of President Bush’s “surge” strategy.

“We want to change the policy” in Iraq, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. “The question is, how far can we go?”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently telegraphed his willingness to modify the Democrats’ long-held position that Congress should set a date certain for the beginning of a withdrawal from the conflict. But the question remains how many Republicans will take him up on his offer, and how many Democrats might abandon Reid if he moves too far to the right.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” acknowledged one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “The goal continues to be finding enough votes to force a change in administration policy and begin bringing the troops home.”

But the aide cautioned that Democrats are in a holding pattern on Iraq until they formally hear the reports from U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker that are scheduled for next week.

Much of the Democrats’ hopes for forcing a change in the Bush administration’s Iraq policy appear to hinge on respected defense hawk Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who has attempted to walk a fine line between calling for changes in Iraq and rebuffing Democrats’ calls to force a date certain for those changes.

Warner, who recently announced his retirement, repeatedly has given Democrats hope that he may be slowly shifting to a more hard-line stance with the administration by making statements that appear to indicate his frustration with the White House’s handling of the war. But he also continues to publicly deflect questions about what he will support.

“At this point in time, I’m going to wait for the president to inform the nation and the Congress as to any such changes he intends to make. At that time, I and others will give our thoughts,” Warner said Tuesday.

But one senior Senate Democratic aide noted that, should Warner decide to join forces with Democrats on a potential compromise, he likely would bring other fence-sitting Republicans with him.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) indicated Tuesday that Democrats continue to be uncertain about the level of success they may have in attracting Republicans willing to break with the president. “There have been an awful lot of Republicans who have said on their own that they want to change the course in Iraq, but every time we try to put pen to paper they say, ‘That’s not exactly what we meant,’” he said.

Still, Durbin said Democrats are committed to making another attempt at compromise. “There are meetings going on now — individual meetings with individual Republican Senators — trying to find out how far they will go,” he said.

Additionally, Reid has had “several conversations with Republicans in recent days,” the Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

Stabenow said Senate Democrats are waiting to see whether Republicans will truly make good on their repeated assertions earlier this year that their patience with the current Iraq strategy was not unlimited.

“Republican Senators have to decide whether they meant what they said about holding the administration’s feet to the fire in September,” she said.

Meanwhile, Democrats also are undecided about how they will approach the upcoming Iraq War debate. The Democratic aide noted that the likely vehicle for Iraq amendments would be when the Defense Department authorization bill comes up later this month but said Democrats “couldn’t rule out the idea of a free-standing Iraq bill.”

One thing is reasonably certain: Senate Democrats are not counting on reaching a broad compromise that includes Senate GOP leaders, such as Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).

“We don’t expect Senator McConnell to be part of our effort” at compromise, Durbin said.

The Senate Republican Conference has organized a press conference today in which McConnell and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) are expected to question the credibility of the recent Government Accountability Office report on the Iraq War. The GAO report, which Democrats have seized on as an independent assessment of progress in Iraq, presents a gloomy picture of both the surge strategy and the Iraqi government’s ability to govern independently, but military commanders have criticized it.

Senate Republican leaders, in particular, appear to be attempting to rally their rank and file to give the surge strategy more time to continue the modicum of success it already has achieved in making parts of Iraq more secure.

That stems partly from Republicans’ belief in a new “silent majority” theory, which posits that even though the war is unpopular with Americans, the public does not want to lose in Iraq, according to several aides.

“Our Republican Senators feel much more comfortable about the surge than they did before leaving town for the August recess,” one Senate GOP leadership aide said of many Republican Senators’ thinking. “The momentum shifted over August.”

The aide added that politically, “Our core base would not support us running really fast away from the president. … Our strategy in Iraq, in the short term, causes a lot of pain, but in the long term, prevents a lot of problems for the party.”

Plus, Republicans anticipate that Petraeus will recommend at least a modest drawdown of troops in Iraq — a situation that could give both House and Senate Republicans some political cover going into a tough election year.

Retiring Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said the Bush administration needs to acknowledge the failures of Iraqi politicians and provide a framework for how that situation can change.

“You can’t ignore the fact that the government doesn’t work and [Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki] can’t get his act together,” he said, suggesting that Bush may want to call for new elections.

“This is the defining moment for the war,” LaHood said, and added that the pressures on House Republicans might spur many to back some form of timelines for withdrawing at least some troops.

“With the election a year away, you are going to see people trying to find cover,” LaHood said. “Republicans need to be able to go back home and say it’s not going to be 160,000 troops a year from now, it’s going to be 100,000.”

LaHood said many in the GOP need something “strong, firm and dramatic, with very significant timelines” for withdrawing troops and said Bush may endorse some troop withdrawals.

Rep. Mark Kirk (R-Ill.), another moderate, said moderate Democrats and Republicans want to see bipartisan amendments made in order on the House floor and many want to back the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommendations without withdrawal timelines.

“Moderates are very strongly in favor of the Iraq Study Group,” he said. “The Iraq Study Group didn’t have timelines, and it represents a policy that is different from what President Bush wants and also different from what Speaker [Nancy] Pelosi [D-Calif.] wants,” Kirk said.

Moderate Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) said he’s still not enamored with firm timelines for withdrawal but indicated that the time has come to see if the Iraqis can fend for themselves. “Sooner or later mama bird takes baby bird and sees if it can fly,” Davis said. “We’re past that point.”

Steven T. Dennis and Erin P. Billings contributed to this report.

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