WASHINGTON—Back from a weeklong recess, top Democrats in the House of Representatives and the Senate acknowledged Tuesday that they still don't have a game plan for how to force President Bush to change policy in Iraq.
"There has not yet been a determination made by the Democratic caucus as to how we will finalize our legislative approach to this," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. He said it would be another week or two before Senate debate on Iraq resumed.
House Democrats are not much closer to decisive action, although they did pass a nonbinding resolution earlier this month opposing Bush's troop buildup in Iraq.
"We are in the process of choosing the least dangerous, the least negative alternative," said House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. "We're not there; there's not a consensus."
The division and confusion over how to proceed could anger voters who put Democrats in control of Congress largely in frustration over the war. But Democrats are nervous about cutting off money in a way that could undermine soldiers who already are in Iraq—or expose Democrats to Republican charges that they're doing that.
House Democrats huddled for a closed-door caucus Tuesday evening to discuss alternatives. They are trying to modify a controversial plan by the Democrats' top defense appropriator, Rep. John Murtha of Pennsylvania, to prevent the Bush administration from sending troops that aren't fully rested or equipped.
Murtha was poised to tie troop readiness to funding in a $93.4 billion war-spending bill requested by the White House. But many Democrats are wary of going that far; even Murtha's ally, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., has said she won't hamstring war money in a way that hurts troops.
Pelosi said Tuesday evening she intends to bring a supplemental war bill that contains some version of Murtha's plan before the full House by mid-March.
But several Democrats who attended the caucus said the legislation ultimately may allow Bush to waive troop restrictions so long as he explains his reasoning.
That's not good enough for some liberal Democrats.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., said that if leaders put forth legislation without a funding provision that brings troops home, "I will not vote for it.
"We are not unified," Woolsey said. "We've got a lot of work to do."
In a brief interview after the caucus, Pelosi said that if Democrats do allow the president to sign waivers, it still would put Bush under more pressure.
"If I were the president of the United States I would not welcome having to confirm why he would send troops who are not trained . . . into a war zone," Pelosi said.
"But we haven't made our final decisions about this," she emphasized.
Even if House Democrats agree to a modified version of Murtha's plan, there's little prospect for bipartisan support, partly because Republicans don't want to help Democrats build a case for de-funding the war in months to come.
"The cat's out of the bag now about what the real plan is," said Rep. Adam Putnam of Florida, the chairman of the Republican Conference, referring to Murtha's original goal.
Putnam wasn't sympathetic to Hoyer's argument Tuesday that the Bush administration's poor management of the war has given Democrats a series of bad choices.
"No one made him run for majority leader," Putnam said. "He's got the power. He needs to recognize that with it comes the responsibility."
In addition, House Democrats could have trouble getting enough Senate Democrats to go along with anything that ties up troops.
Said freshman Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., "This is a Catch-22. At some point in time we've got to get the president's attention. But I'm not going to take away what's necessary for the troops in the field. That's not acceptable."
Reid said he planned to put the Iraq debate on hold until the Senate completed action on homeland security legislation that enacts recommendations of the 9-11 commission. That's likely to continue into next week.
That would give Senate Democrats more time to build consensus on how to proceed on Iraq. One option being discussed is rescinding the 2002 vote that authorized the use of force in Iraq. Another, Reid said, is legislation that changes the mission in Iraq.
Asked what his preference is, Reid said, "I have a preference of making sure that I have my arms around the entire caucus before I put my name on an amendment."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)
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