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House Centrists Seek a Little Moderation on Iraq

A small band of moderate House Democrats and Republicans is hammering out a bipartisan position on the Iraq War that would avoid hard timelines for withdrawal, even as each party’s leaders still appear to be on a collision course.

Reps. Mike Castle (R-Del.) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.) have drafted a letter backing a series of proposals from the Iraq Study Group aimed at shifting the Iraq mission and incorporating such issues as ensuring leave for soldiers after they return home, and they hope to release it later this week after they finish collecting signatures.

“None of this leads to the end of the war,” Castle said, but it would mark a departure from the polarized debate over whether and when to withdraw troops. “There is quite a bit of interest in the middle to get some kind of bipartisan effort,” Castle said, declining to be more specific about the proposal.

The letter was presented on Monday night at a dinner held by the Center Aisle Caucus, led by Reps. Steve Israel (D-N.Y.) and Wayne Gilchrest (R-Md.), following a meeting between a group of moderate Republicans and House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), who has been trying to keep the party’s moderate wing from bolting despite intense pressure in some districts to abandon President Bush and the unpopular war. So far Republican leaders have succeeded in preventing significant public defections, and House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) has driven an especially hard line on supporting the war.

Israel said a dozen Members attended the bipartisan dinner and agreed to move forward on four initiatives. One is to try to get Members to agree to a bipartisan statement of common principles, such as the Tanner/Castle letter, Israel said.

“We’re trying to advance a set of bipartisan principles that can create a critical mass,” Israel said. “Many centrists feel drowned out by a debate that has been polarized. My constituents are tired of hearing us attacking each other.”

Reps. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.) and Bud Cramer (D-Ala.) are working on a plan for bipartisan town hall meetings in each other’s districts, and Israel and Gilchrest plan to hold a monthly series of bipartisan special orders on the war. Most House debate on the war has consisted of “Democrats calling Republicans warmongers” and Republicans criticizing Democrats as defeatists, Israel said.

“We’re going to make C-SPAN something safe for children to watch,” Israel joked. “I know that I’m going to disagree with Republicans on 75 percent of Iraq, but that means there’s 25 percent we can agree on and I’d rather spend my time on that.”

Reps. Jim Cooper (D-Tenn.) and Phil English (R-Pa.), meanwhile, are joining together on reworking the War Powers Act to ensure that Congress is consulted before the next war.

“As Jim Cooper said, he’s worried he’s going to wake up one morning and World War III will have broken out and he’ll read it in the newspaper,” Israel said.

In the Senate, Democrats and Republicans remained undecided about which Iraq War-related amendments would come before the chamber this week or next during debate on the Defense Department authorization bill. But attention Tuesday centered on a proposal by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) mandating that individual soldiers are provided time off equal to their time deployed in war zones.

Democrats appear close to gaining the 60 votes needed to choke off a filibuster on the amendment, which garnered 56 votes in July. While Democrats say they are poised to pick up the four votes they need, Republicans have been working to reverse the position of previous GOP supporters.

After meeting on Tuesday with Defense Secretary Robert Gates, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) appeared to distance himself from his previous vote for the Webb amendment. Asked whether he would vote for it again, Warner replied, “Time will tell.”

A number of other Republicans, including Sens. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Elizabeth Dole (N.C.), said they were seriously considering voting for the amendment, but noted that Webb was still tweaking the language.

“I like the idea,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). But he echoed a concern of many other Republicans, saying, “But I don’t want to support an amendment that is a backdoor deadline [for troop withdrawal] or handcuffs the commander” in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Senate Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.) said Republicans could offer a nonbinding alternative to Webb stating that the Senate understands the burden soldiers face from multiple deployments with little time at home.

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