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Tonight on C-SPAN: A Very Special Iraq Debate

Not impressed with this fall’s new television lineup? Well, don’t forget C-SPAN, which for the next two weeks will bring you exciting new episodes of stubborn Senate debate over the Iraq War. But don’t expect chamber Democrats to premiere their signature “Pull Troops Out of Iraq Sooner Than the President Wants to” amendment before it’s been audience-tested. [IMGCAP(1)]

Leading off this week’s prime-time lineup for the Defense Department authorization bill likely will be blockbuster amendments to close the Guantanamo Bay detention center, give detainees the right to contest their imprisonment and, possibly, end the Bush administration’s use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” that critics have likened to torture.

Either way, the stage is set for another gripping installment of the Democrats’ anti-war crusade, starting Thursday at the earliest and possibly continuing into next week. Plus, back by somewhat popular demand, is Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin’s (D-Mich.) proposal to force a change in mission, but, this time, without hard deadlines for a drawdown of U.S. forces!

By reverting back to their “goal” to “transition the mission” to counterterrorism, training Iraqis and protecting American interests, Levin and other Democratic leaders are hoping their fire sale will convince enough Republicans to help them get to that magical, filibuster-proof 60-vote mark.

While that still doesn’t look likely, behind door No. 2 is a slightly altered Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) amendment to compel the military to give active-duty soldiers adequate time off between deployments. Conventional wisdom is that Webb just might have the votes to win this time, after falling four short of 60 in July.

“That is the vehicle that is out there that seems to have the most steam behind it,” one senior Senate Democratic aide said.

Webb added a 120-day delay to the effective date of the legislation in order to address the concerns of Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Even so, Gates said this weekend that the amendment would unnecessarily tie his hands.

“It’s really pretty much a backdoor effort to get the president to accelerate the drawdown so that it’s an automatic kind of thing rather than based on the conditions in Iraq,” Gates said on Fox News Channel.

Indeed, Rep. John Murtha (D-Pa.) told reporters at the National Press Club on Monday that is exactly what the provision is intended to do.

“I think the House could pass it, and it would speed up withdrawals,” Murtha said, adding that Webb’s proposal could be included in the House’s version of the upcoming supplemental Iraq War spending bill.

Regardless of whether the Webb proposal passes, die-hard fans of using the power of the purse to pull out of Iraq will still have a palatable option from Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who is retooling his amendment to eliminate the impression that it would simply cut off funds for the troops.

“They want to rebrand it,” said the senior Senate Democratic aide of the Feingold amendment, which would allow appropriated war funds to be used only for counterterrorism, training Iraqis and force protection after a certain date. Money could not be used for combat missions. The combat funds cut-off date may change from March 31, 2008, to later in the year, and the language, but not the intent, of the measure might be tweaked, sources said.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) hasn’t fully set the fall anti-war lineup yet because he wants to put other ideas before his favorite focus group — the Senate Democratic Conference.

“Sen. Reid is trolling for ideas,” the aide said. “Because it’s such a major caucus effort, you’ve got to get buy-in from a lot of people.”

Because of that, Reid will be waiting to see what rank-and-file Democrats have to say during their weekly lunch today about the numerous other Iraq War-related proposals, the aide said.

Known quantities include a plan by Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to make the bipartisan Iraq Study Group’s recommendations the policy of the United States, but that proposal has been derided by Reid and other top Senate Democrats as too weak.

New proposals also may emerge, perhaps from presidential candidates such as Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) or Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.), Democratic sources said.

Biden said Friday that “it’s important that Democrats are able to lay out a comprehensive strategy to end this war responsibly.” He said he hasn’t put pen to paper yet because of the time constraints imposed by campaigning for president, but he said a responsible plan would include endorsing his proposal to structure a federal system in Iraq, where provincial leaders have more authority than the central government.

Meanwhile, Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) has not yet asked Reid to put his proposal, co- authored with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), in the mix. Nelson’s proposal would require the change in the military mission sought by other Democrats but does not include any timeline, hard or soft, for achieving that. Besides, Levin’s amendment may be so similar that it obviates the need for a second vote.

Senate Republicans also are likely to wait until Tuesday or later in the week to decide their full strategy, and many eyes will be on whatever Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) proposes. One knowledgeable source said Warner was huddling with Gates on Monday, possibly on an alternative to Webb’s amendment or on other issues.

One Senate GOP aide said leaders are attempting to craft their own proposal that would codify the president’s modest withdrawal plan. However, the aide said Republicans are encountering resistance from centrists who want to go further. The aide added that Republicans will not allow votes on Iraq-related amendments “Until we see the [Democrats] language and see where our folks are.”

While the House waits to see what kind of anti-war sentiment the Senate can muster, Murtha used his speech Monday to look forward to the next war funding fight. Though he previously argued to eliminate specified troop withdrawal dates, Murtha told reporters to expect the House to include such a deadline in its version of the supplemental spending bill — which he predicts will cost about $200 billion.

“I talked to the Speaker at great length about this. I offered an amendment which said [we would] start to redeploy with no end zone. They didn’t even consider that. I couldn’t believe it,” said Murtha, who chairs the Appropriations Subcommittee on Defense.

The Pennsylvania lawmaker later added: “I’m not going to tell you here exactly what we’re going to do. … We have a plan which we think we can sell in the House. The Speaker deals continually with the Senate about this.”

Despite vocal opposition from some liberal Democrats, Murtha appeared secure about the bill’s prospects.

“I have confidence whatever we come up with will pass the House and then of course negotiate with the Senate,” Murtha said.

But Murtha acknowledged that few Republicans appear willing to change course and support withdrawal proposals.

“You got a base of support for the Republicans, and they’re not going to change their vote until the [presidential] primary is over,” Murtha said.

Jennifer Yachnin contributed to this report.

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