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Dems Find Bush, GOP Hold Cards On Iraq

Remember that tipping point in the Iraq debate that was going to happen in September? It’s been postponed to March — if ever.

Despite nine months of congressional debate, presidential speeches, high-profile votes in both the House and Senate, controversial ads, anti-war marches and growing casualty lists, little has changed in the war debate – and it’s unlikely to for the next six months, barring major unforeseen developments.

As one top Senate Republican aide put it, “March is the new September,” referring to the heavily scrutinized Capitol Hill appearance of Army Gen. David Petraeus earlier this month to report on the progress of the “surge” of U.S. troops into Iraq – an appearance that was supposed to bring clarity to the clamorous debate.

His performance – and that of U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker – has given President Bush and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) just enough added leverage to beat back a bipartisan attempt to limit troop deployments to Iraq.

And by last Friday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was not even able to muster a majority of the Senate to support a proposal to pull most U.S. forces out of Iraq by June 2008.

“Things are pretty much frozen in place until March,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), one of Bush’s staunchest Senate allies on the war. “Petraeus is clearly a better messenger on this than the president, whom a lot of people have tuned out. The option is what Reed and Levin want to do, and they obviously don’t have the numbers to do that or cut off funds.”

Cornyn was referring to Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), authors of the Democratic withdrawal proposal.

“That’s how it appears to me,” added Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine).

She is holding talks with Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and other moderates on finding some solution to end the Iraq deadlock. But the group has yet to come to an agreement on what it wants to do.

“In real terms, nothing is going to happen,” Snowe said. “I never like to give up; I’m not one that likes to do that. But we are losing precious time here.”

Democratic strategists in both the House and the Senate are even privately suggesting that Republicans are gambling that they have until next summer to decide whether to “ditch Bush” on Iraq and still recover politically by Election Day.

“We’ve yet to have any Republicans switch,” noted a senior Democratic leadership aide, admitting that the strategy of Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) to force repeated votes on Iraq – a tactic designed to force vulnerable Republicans to end their support for the war – has largely failed. “We need a new plan, and there isn’t one.”

Levin and Reed are drafting yet another Iraq-related bill, and they are searching for GOP backers, though with little luck up to this point.

The new Levin-Reed plan will again call for a change in mission for U.S. forces, possibly with a non-binding “goal” of achieving a limited pullout by next year.

But the withdrawal-date language would be non-binding on the White House, and some anti-war Democrats, like Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) and the Democratic presidential candidates, are unlikely to support it.

It is a problem that Reid has faced over and over again in the past few months as he has vacillated between taking a hard line with Bush and the Republicans and seeking a bipartisan compromise that can actually pass.

“I've told Sen. Levin if he could work something out, where it's a meaningful amendment that actually causes the president to do something, … I'm willing to take a look at that,” Reid said.

“I want there to be something that actually changes what the president's doing with his war and the Republican senators' war. Thermust be something that changes.”

Reid also suggested that Democrats would try to attach anti-war provisions to an upcoming $190 billion wartime supplemental spending bill. But he didn’t offer any details on his plans.

But even Democrats admit that such a step will be tough for them to take. Bush and the Republican leadership will surely pummel Democrats for “cutting off funds to the troops” if there is a showdown over the Iraq supplemental.

And this will pressure moderate and conservative Democrats, who will then complain to Reid, who will also be pressured from the anti-war lawmakers and groups not to cut a deal with the White House.

In the end, Bush still is likely to have the upper hand politically, as he did when a similar fight took place earlier this year.

“Reid is in a terrible position,” noted a Senate Democratic leadership aide. “He has to strike a balance between moderates and liberals and the [Democratic] presidentials in our caucus, and then he has to cut a deal with [Minority Leader Mitch] McConnell, and then he has to sell it to Pelosi and the House guys, and then he has to sell it to MoveOn. There is no way he can make everyone happy, just no way.”

In her own bid to force some kind of movement on Iraq, Pelosi will now allow Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D-Hawaii) and John Tanner (D-Tenn.) a floor vote on their proposal to require the Bush administration to develop a non-binding strategy to withdraw U.S. combat troops.

Several other factors also play into the growing conviction among Republicans that Bush and Petraeus have bought themselves another six months on Iraq, enough time to get beyond much of the rapidly approaching presidential nominating contests.

The likelihood that the GOP will have all but officially chosen its 2008 nominee by the time Petraeus and Crocker return means that Bush will still be able to keep most Republicans in line until then, since no Republican nominee – or lawmaker – is going to part ways with Bush on Iraq until Petraeus gives his next report.

Anti-war groups, despite all their efforts – which include radio and television ad campaigns, in addition to grass-roots lobbying of vulnerable Republicans in their home states and districts – have also failed to move any votes in Congress.

“There has been a lot of energy from [the anti-war groups], but they haven’t changed anyone’s minds,” admitted a top House Democratic strategist. “They have not scared anyone into saying, ‘If I don’t vote with them, I will lose next year.’ They have not been able to inspire that kind of fear.”

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