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GOP Aims for Iraq Floor Fight

Advantage Seen in Debate

Eyeing a rare shot to exploit Democratic disunity on the Iraq War, Senate Republican leaders are strongly considering sidelining the use of the filibuster and agreeing to a full debate on at least one of two Iraq-related bills sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.).

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) agreed to allow Feingold two separate cloture motions on Iraq-related bills this week, both of which Reid has co-sponsored. One would begin the pullout of troops from Iraq, while the other would require the Defense Department to provide the Senate with a report on the threat al-Qaida poses.

Democrats privately said Reid was not enthusiastic about resuming the debate on Iraq at this point — he had hoped to put that fight off until the supplemental spending measure comes up later this spring. But Reid, who has become increasingly outspoken against the war, agreed to allow the votes in part because GOP opposition would likely defeat them, limiting the amount of time the Senate would debate the issue.

While a formal decision won’t be made until GOP Senators convene for their weekly policy luncheon today, sources said the strategy was discussed at a staff-level meeting of the Conference’s leadership on Monday, and that Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was to propose the strategy to the rank and file today.

“All options are being discussed,” said one senior Republican aide, who added that “it’s hard to see the downside” of not forcing Democrats into full debate on the proposal.

Republican Senators are aiming to put Democrats in the uncomfortable position of having to cast votes on a measure that links war funding to a scaling down of operations in Iraq. The proposal mirrors similar legislation that failed last year.

As one Republican aide put it: “It’s not as great a vote for them as it once was.”

That’s because Republicans believe Iraq is more stable today than it was even a few months ago in the wake of last year’s troop surge.

Republicans haven’t been unified on the war, especially heading into and following the 2006 elections that cost them the majority in Congress. But on this measure, Republicans say they are together and would coalesce to oppose it on final passage.

Meanwhile, they believe most Democrats would struggle with their votes on it, given that similar measures have previously split the majority down the middle.

Feingold’s and Reid’s aides could not be reached for comment.

Reid scheduled consideration of the two Iraq bills this week, with two procedural votes to proceed to debate expected later today. Neither measure had been expected to win the necessary 60 votes to move toward full consideration and final passage this week. But that could change if the Republicans press ahead with their new strategy.

“This provides us with an opportunity to talk about the political progress and military progress we’ve seen in Iraq and [allow for a] demonstration of the remarkable split within the Democrat Congress,” said a Republican leadership aide.

For their part, Democrats have recently aligned themselves with public sentiment on the war but have failed to press President Bush to change the overall direction of his Iraq War policy. Numerous times last year, the newly minted Democratic majority tried to force an end to the conflict but often failed to win enough support in the narrowly divided Senate.

Democratic leadership aides said Reid and Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) don’t view the pair of Feingold measures as part of the party’s attempt to put political pressure on Bush. Rather, Reid agreed to allow the votes late last year and is following through on that promise to Feingold.

A House Democratic leadership aide said Democrats will likely use this April’s debate on the supplemental war spending measure to debate the state of the war. But it remains unclear whether and to what degree the majority will try to link timelines or a major shift in policy to the war funding, given Congressional Democrats have been unsuccessful in the past.

“Certainly, there’s a lot of interest on our side to do some sort of Iraq legislation, but the reality is, it’s very difficult to get that through the Senate,” said a Democratic leadership aide. “So really, if we want a change, we have to replace the Republicans in the Senate and get a new president.”

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