On the eve of a critical vote, Democrats in the House of Representatives labored to lock down a majority behind a Sept. 1, 2008, date for U.S. combat troops to be pulled out of Iraq. It will be the sternest test yet for a determined new majority party eager to challenge President Bush.
"If it comes off, it's a superb accomplishment," Democratic Rep. Barney Frank said Thursday as the party's leaders cajoled liberals who want an even faster timetable and moderates fearful of tying the hands of the commander in chief and generals in the field.
Democratic aides expressed growing confidence of success when the vote is called. Four of the bill's most consistent critics said they had told the Democratic speaker of the House, Rep. Nancy Pelosi, they would help pass it, even though they intend personally to vote against it.
"While I cannot betray my conscience, I cannot stand in the way of passing a measure that puts a concrete end date on this unnecessary war," said one of the four, Rep. Barbara Lee.
An aide to Pelosi confirmed the speaker had met with Lee and Reps. Lynn Woolsey, Maxine Waters and Diane Watson. All four of the members and Pelosi are Democrats from California. With party leaders lobbying intensively on its own, however, it was not clear which lawmakers, if any, had swung behind the bill as a result of the offer the four had made.
Throughout the day, a string of liberal opponents of the war swung behind a bill they deemed insufficient.
"I want this war ended today. If I thought it would help this war ending sooner by voting against the bill, I would vote against it in a heartbeat," said Democratic Rep. Jim McGovern, who sponsored legislation for a troop withdrawal in 2005.
"But I don't believe that to be the case," he added, speaking of the bill that combines money for the war, the troop withdrawal deadline and billions of dollars for politically popular programs at home ranging from farm aid to relief for the victims of Hurricane Katrina.
The legislation marks Congress' most direct challenge to date of Bush's policy in a war that has claimed the lives of nearly 3,200 U.S. troops and tens of thousands of Iraqis.
As debate began in the House, Republicans criticized it vociferously. "The bill is a sham," one of them, Rep. Harold Rogers, said. He said it would "provide fodder for our enemies abroad."
Bush has threatened to veto the bill, opposing both the troop withdrawal provision and billions of dollars in spending the Democrats added.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said any delay in approving the funds could "have a genuinely adverse affect on the readiness of the Army and the quality of life for soldiers and their families."
White House press secretary Tony Snow sharpened the message. "There's a very real chance that money for the troops will run out while members of Congress are on vacation," he said. "Is that the message you want to send to men and women who are putting their lives on the line?"
Across the Capitol, a Senate committee launched legislation taking a slightly different approach: to set a date to begin a withdrawal but only a nonbinding goal of March 31, 2008, for the final exit of combat forces.
The measure cleared the Senate Appropriations Committee on a voice vote, but Republicans said they would attempt to strip out the withdrawal provisions when the issue comes before the full Senate next week.
Senate Democrats fell short of a majority, 50-48, last week on a similar attempt to set a timeline for the war. Since then, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and others have made changes in hopes of persuading Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Mark Pryor of Arkansas to swing behind the withdrawal proposal. The changes include a series of suggested goals for the Iraqi government to meet to provide for its own security, enhance democracy and distribute its oil wealth fairly.
More than two months after Democrats took power, the main focus in the war debate was on the House, where Democratic Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other leaders chipped away at holdouts.
Democratic Rep. Jim McDermott, a 10th-term lawmaker and longtime opponent of the war, said he would support the measure. He called the legislation a "bare minimum but dramatically better than what we have today, which is a war without end, from a president capable only of escalation, not negotiation."
Democratic Rep. Hank Johnson, new to Congress, said he was leaning toward supporting the legislation as well. Like McDermott, he said he wanted a faster end to the war but also that he had listened to the arguments of party leaders that the current measure was the most that could be passed given the current composition of the House.
"What we are here to do is to govern," Johnson said of the new Democratic majority, which came to power last January after midterm elections framed by voter discontent with the war.
Democrats hold 233 seats in the 435-seat House, meaning they can lose 15 votes from their rank and file and still be assured of passing the measure.
Whatever the vote count, some war foes disagreed with the strategy.
"I think the Democrats are doing it all wrong," said Rep. Dennis Kucinich, a former Democratic presidential candidate.
"We don't agree with them," said Democratic Rep. Lynn Woolsey. She said she and others believe the party must "honor what the voters of November said, which is to be bold, end the war and bring the troops home."
In another sign of gathering support for the legislation, however, the Congressional Black Caucus issued a statement pointing favorably to numerous provisions apart from the withdrawal deadline. The list included increased funding for traumatic brain injury care and research, money for post-traumatic stress disorder, money for the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and $1.3 billion in hurricane protection for the New Orleans area.