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Democrats Chuck Iraq Compromise

Senate Democrats, who have spent weeks trying to woo Republicans to help end the war in Iraq, have taken a hard turn against compromise.

They now believe their best political strategy is to continue to play to a stalemate and blame an intransigent President Bush and his Republican congressional allies for refusing to negotiate an end to the war.

“We haven’t found much movement with the Republicans. They seem to be sticking with the president,” Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Tuesday. “I think they’ve decided they definitely want this to be the Republican Senate’s war, not just Bush’s [war]. They’re jealous. They don’t want him to have it as only his war.”

The calculus for getting the 60 votes needed to end the GOP filibuster on Iraq legislation apparently became too difficult for Reid to achieve, and a compromise could have forced anti-war Democrats to vote on softer goals for troop withdrawal, something staunchly opposed by the party’s base.

So Reid has forged ahead with an aggressive list of Iraq proposals, including a key amendment that would place hard timetables on troop withdrawal, shifting the mission in Iraq for U.S. forces from combat to supporting the Iraqi security forces, and completing the deployment.

Reid’s move essentially brings to an abrupt halt the delicate lobbying Democrats had engaged with moderate Republican senators whom they thought were vulnerable on the war issue.

Instead, Democrats have opted for amendments that will undoubtedly please their base but have little chance of reaching 60 votes.

“We want to vote on something we believe in before we move on,” said Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee. “There could be people who vote for this who didn’t before.”

Levin had previously suggested that he and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), a senior member of the Armed Services panel, would offer a new withdrawal proposal that would have a firm date for beginning a pullout but set only a “goal” for when all U.S. forces would leave Iraq, leaving that up to Bush or his successor to decide.

The idea was to attract support from moderate Republicans for the proposal.

But Levin clearly encountered some pushback from rank-and-file Democrats who would vote for only a firm withdrawal strategy. Democratic aides say they’ll still look for compromise language down the road, but for now they’re going to offer firm troop withdrawal amendments and nothing else.

Republican leaders, who were worried about losing at least a half-dozen moderate senators on Iraq votes, said the Democratic strategy was transparent.

Bolstered by positive reports from Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador there, in their appearance before House and Senate panels last week, GOP leaders said they remain committed to giving Bush until next March to continue his “surge” war strategy.

In an Oval Office speech last week, Bush said 5,700 U.S. troops would be returning home by Christmas, followed by roughly 20,000 more next summer, leaving approximately 130,000 troops in Iraq. Bush said Petraeus and Crocker, as well as other military officials, would reassess the situation in the spring and potentially could call for additional troop withdrawals then.

“It seems to me they’re abandoning trying to get to 60 [senators], and they’re writing a base-driven document,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), a strong proponent of continuing the U.S. military campaign in Iraq. “It’s a step backwards.”

Also in doubt is an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), which would mandate longer rest times for troops between deployments. Democrats, just a couple votes shy on the Webb amendment Tuesday, were scrambling to line up two or three more Rpublicans.

But Democratic and Republican Senate aides said Democrats were not counting on Sen. John Warner’s support for the Webb proposal, even though the Virginia Republican voted for the same measure earlier this year — yet another blow to the Democrats’ effort to get 60 votes on that amendment.

With the return of Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.) to the Senate after an extended medical leave, Democrats have another vote.

But opponents of the Webb amendment, including Sen. John McCain of Arizona, the ranking Republican on Armed Services, said the measure amounts to “micromanagement of personnel policy.” And Defense Secretary Robert Gates has warned that Bush would veto any bill containing the Webb language.

In addition, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki inspires little hope among lawmakers in both parties, as evidenced by his comments to Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and a bipartisan delegation of senators who traveled to Iraq over the weekend.

Al-Maliki “has not enthusiastically embraced the notion of national reconciliation” between warring Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish groups within Iraq, Snowe said.

“At one point, [al-Maliki] did say the presence of U.S. troops would not make a difference in spurring on reconciliation,” she said, which would undermine much of the logic behind Bush’s current policy there.

“It could happen, if you had the right leader willing to drive that agenda,” Snowe said, indicating, though, that al-Maliki was probably not that leader.

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