Iraq Policy: Can Anyone Take The Hill?

The pressure against the White House to change course in Iraq will continue to mount this week, as Senate Democrats are scheduling a vote on a binding piece of legislation that would require withdrawal of U.S. troops by the end of the year.

It's the strongest proposal of a veritable flurry of amendments piling up as the Senate takes up a major defense spending bill. Two of the Senate's elder GOP statesmen, John Warner of Virginia and Richard Lugar of Indiana, unveiled a bill late Friday that's significant perhaps more for its sponsors than for its content.

The two Republicans have thus far taken a carefully measured approached to Iraq war policy and are intent on pushing the president to consider alternative strategies by the fall to his "surge" policy, but the bill doesn't include any firm timelines or requirements to withdraw troops.

In addition to Warner and Lugar, a growing number of Republican senators have spoken out against the president's Iraq policies, but only a few have committed to voting for any legislation that would significantly curtail Bush's surge plan. Senate Democrats have so far fallen short of the 60-vote majority they need to push legislation through. That'll likely continue.

There is a little bit of the proverbial Goldilocks analogy here, except none of the proposals seem to turn out "just right."

Too hot: The vast majority of Republicans, and of course Bush, are opposed to restricting the military's "surge" plan, especially ahead of the much-anticipated report in September from Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.

Bush has dispatched his top lieutenants, including National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to convince wavering Republicans on Capitol Hill. Their efforts have mostly worked (Sens. Chuck Hagel and Olympia Snowe are two clear defections), but either they've staved off additional dissenters, or the dissenters aren't so firm in their positions just yet.

Too cold: The Democratic base wants to withdraw troops from Iraq, and doesn't want to wait until September.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid has described as "toothless" a proposal backed by Sens. Ken Salazar of Colorado that would implement the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, including the redeployment of U.S. forces to primarily training missions, but without a firm withdrawal deadline. Reid and the Democratic leadership are backing an amendment that would start the withdrawal of U.S. forces 120 days from when the legislation is signed.

Just right?: The Warner-Lugar proposal is a middle-ground strategy that aims to draw a bipartisan backing by requiring the president to draw up an alternative plan if his "surge" mission isn't working in September. The new plan would be required by mid-October and involve a redeployment of troops and dramatically narrow their mission. Lugar called the original 2002 congressional authorization for the war "obsolete" for the war in Iraq, considering how the mission has changed.

For antiwar activists, the trouble is really in the numbers. As of yet, they simply do not have the votes necessary to restrict the president's policies and certainly not a vetoproof majority.

As for the Warner-Lugar proposal, Lugar said on Sunday: "I'm hopeful that, in fact, most Democrats will support our amendment, just as a matter of common sense." But the Democratic base wants more stringent legislation than their proposal offers.

Several Republicans may support the bill, perhaps as a form of political cover. As one Senate Republican leadership aide said: "I think it's much tamer than expected." But it's unclear at this point if the amendment will have any legislative impact, aside from marking Republican discontent with the president.

Meanwhile, Republicans plan to hammer Democrats on the question of whether Iraqis will be safer witU.S. troops out of Iraq and to continue to link the war in Iraq with the fight against al Qaeda. The pressure and PR campaign continue to ratchet up, but September continues to be the signal date.

By Silla Brush