In public, Democrats maintained a brave front, dismissing recommendations from Army Gen. David Petraeus as too little, too late and suggesting he was the puppet of an unpopular president.
Behind the scenes, though, Democrats are scrambling to deal with a new dynamic on Capitol Hill — they’re the ones who are trying to come up with a new political strategy on the war. Definitive timetables for ending the war are dead on arrival in the Senate, yet embracing Petraeus’ partial withdrawal would give Republicans a significant victory.
So Democrats in the Senate, where critical votes are expected next week on the war, spent much of Tuesday trying to finesse legislative language that mandates a withdrawal that’s faster and more robust than what Petraeus wants, yet lacks a requirement for total withdrawal.
Call it Petraeus plus.
“The pace of his withdrawal is unacceptable,” said Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.). “There will be proposals that bring us beyond where Gen. Petraeus wants to be.”
Yet, like many Democrats, Durbin acknowledged that his party hasn’t settled on a proposal to counter the apparent momentum that Petraeus’ recommendations have given Republicans. The calculus in the Senate remains where it has been all along for Democratic leaders: crafting something strong enough to keep Democrats on board while luring a handful of moderate Republicans worried about how the war is playing back home.
“We are working on a number of different ideas,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who added that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was “reaching out” not only to Democrats but Republicans in search of a proposal that will receive the 60 votes needed to overcome filibusters in the Senate.
The problem for Democrats is that Petraeus’ call to bring 30,000 troops home by next summer injected a dose of nuance into the end-the-war versus stay-the-course delineation Democrats have thrived on.
A debate about the pace of withdrawal may not please the anti-war base, but it’s the hand Democrats have been dealt at this point. Republicans have also shown a little more spring in their step this week as Petraeus has dominated the news cycle. President Bush will certainly try to capitalize on that with his endorsement of Petraeus’ recommendations in a national television address expected on Thursday.
“It has to take a lot of steam out of the Democrats,” Sen. Orrin G. Hatch (R-Utah) said of the testimony of Petraeus and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. “They were calling for a withdrawal, and now they are backing off and asking for more time.”
Democrats, of course, could refuse to compromise and offer stringent troop withdrawal legislation sure to be vetoed by President Bush.
But even if Democrats in Congress are unified in their desire to force an orderly end to the war, they are more divided post-Petraeus than at any other point this year over exactly how to proceed when it comes to real votes.
With Democratic leaders contemplating their next step, the various factions in the party fought to position themselves.
Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.), who was among the first lawmakers to call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, said he expects that the Petraeus report will actually have the opposite effect, pushing Democrats toward an even more robust withdrawal proposal.
“I am picking up from my colleagues today a sense of exasperation and the feeling that they ... are not being fooled by this claim of real progress,” Feingold said.
Feingold predicted that his colleagues may join his call for a quick withdrawal “just in time for the vote.” Sen. Kent Conrad (D-N.D.) said he won’t support such a plan and placed himself in the compromise camp.
“I personally don’t think, militarily, it’s wise to set a specific deadline for leving,” Conrad said. “I do support a goal for redeployment, ... but we need more than what Petraeus has called for.”
Schumer brushed aside suggestions that Petraeus’ report is dividing his caucus, saying, “We are pretty good at unity.”
The retooling by Democrats, though, shows how quickly things can change in the political debate over the war. Last week, Democrats were moving toward a compromise engineered by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to mandate the beginning of a withdrawal but abandon the required completion date. Now that plan sounds a lot like Petraeus’ recommendations, so Democrats are searching for something that sounds stronger.
“We need to tweak it and give it more teeth, while still picking up more Republicans,” said Jim Manley, a spokesman for Reid, who will ultimately decide which Democratic proposal sees a vote next week. “Sen. Levin is working hard to satisfy as many parties as possible.”
Republicans in Congress who were worried about continued defections of their party’s moderates have suddenly found a certain comfort zone in endorsing Petraeus’ partial withdrawal while goading Democrats into bringing up legislation that is bound to fail.
“I feel a strong need to do nothing,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said when asked what the Senate should vote on next week. “We should get out of the way.”
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) added that “the status quo is just fine with us.”
In fact, Republicans may not even need to come up with an alternative plan as Democrats bring the war debate back to the floor of the Senate. They may just let Democrats scramble for consensus.
AAsked what the Democrats’ next move on Iraq will be, Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) said, “You will see,” with an emphatic fist pump, before turning back to a reporter and saying with a laugh, “That’s assuming we know.”