Senate Democrats' failure to reach agreement with wavering Republicans on legislation to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq forced party leaders to concede Friday that they are running low on options for altering President Bush's war strategy this year.
The breakdown, coming at the end of days of debate over defense policy legislation, makes it increasingly likely that Congress will conclude 2007 without passing a single Iraq bill of policy-altering significance. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Friday that the next big Iraq showdown could come over an emergency war-funding bill that may not be considered until early next year, as he and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., turn their attention to the domestic policy front, where Democrats' prospects for success are brighter.
"We've done a lot of talking," Reid said of efforts to attract GOP votes. But the bottom line is: "People either want something or nothing."
One of the few remaining windows for Democrats is on the spending front. Until war funding is secured for the next year, Democrats say that action to force Bush to change course is still possible, said Reid spokesman Jim Manley.
The latest attempt to find consensus fizzled late Thursday. Last week, Democrats failed to pass a proposal to bring home most troops by next June and to narrow the U.S. mission. But Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., still held out hope that at least 10 Republicans &
enough to break a filibuster by Bush's GOP allies &
might agree to a more flexible June goal.
Both sides were optimistic about a deal until Republican negotiators demanded that the timetable be pushed from June to sometime after the 2008 presidential election. Levin balked.
"It introduces a political element, putting it into the next administration," Levin explained. "For a lot of Democrats, that's inappropriate."
Levin and the Republican negotiators, Sens. George Voinovich of Ohio and Lamar Alexander of Tennesse, tried to blend several proposals that have been floating around, including the Democratic plan to specify a withdrawal deadline, new Pentagon reporting requirements that some GOP moderates have been advocating and a bipartisan initiative &
co-sponsored by Alexander &
to turn last year's recommendations by the Iraq Study Group into law.
It was Alexander's idea to extend the time frame, to match the 15-month transition period that the study group recommended. But even with the additional six months, Voinovich could not promise Levin a large number of Republican votes. And when Levin shopped it around in his caucus, the response was an emphatic no.
The House and Senate will debate fiscal 2008 defense spending in the coming weeks. Although war opponents are expected to renew their bid to restrict Iraq funding as part of the debate, some Democratic leaders are cool to the idea of holding up the entire Pentagon budget. The administration is expected to make an additional request for Iraq funding, but action on that package could be delayed until February. "I think that's where you're going to see the next dogfight," Reid predicted.
War opponents are bound to be disappointed if the Iraq debate slows down. Sen. Russell Feingold, Wis., an outspoken antiwar Democrat, even protested a stop-gap resolution approved late Thursday that would keep government funds flowing beyond the Sept. 30 end of the current fiscal year, while Congress completes work on the next fiscal year's spending bills. The resolution, Feingold noted, would also extend Iraq funding.
"We need to keep the federal government operating and make sure our brave troops get all the equipment and supplies they need, but we should not be giving the president a blank check to continue a war that is hurting our national security," Feingold said.
But at a certain point, Levin said Friday, Democrats must concede to political reality. Despite voter disapproval with both the war and Bush, only a handful of Senate Republicans have switched sides on binding Iraq legislation.
"We can't break a filibuster," said Levin, referring to the 60-vote threshold that GOP leaders have demanded on Iraq bills. "We spent a lot of time on it. We just didn't succeed."
Democrats did attach three Iraq-related amendments to the defense bill this week: a statement of support for a federalist-style political system; the creation of an independent commission to investigate contracting abuse; and the easing of restrictions for Iraqi refugees. The party's liberal base, though, would prefer that Democrats take a more defiant approach, refusing to yield to Republican procedural objections even if it brings the Senate to a standstill.
But Levin said: "There's so much that we can do here, in the majority, that we can succeed on. Unless there's some prospect that we can accomplish our goal, it seems to me it would be almost a sign of weakness" to draw out the Iraq fight on the floor. "I don't think we have to prove our commitment to bringing an end to this war, changing the mission," he added.
Democrats concede they lack votes to alter war policy