WASHINGTON — Now that President Bush has said he'll start to withdraw the extra forces he sent to Iraq by next summer, Senate Democrats likely will roll out legislation this week that would require deeper troop cuts much sooner.
In the spotlight will be about 10 Republican senators who are frustrated with Bush's war policy but haven't yet voted against it. Democrats need more Republican support to get any Iraq measures past the Senate's requirement of 60 votes on controversial issues. It's not clear if they can get it.
Democrats have been searching for a formula that would gain Republican backing but still meet their own bottom-line requirement of a significant reduction of forces as quickly as the military could safely move troops and equipment out.
Senate Democrats plan to meet again Tuesday before announcing detailed plans, but they've outlined the main options.
The one considered most likely to pass was offered by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., who served as a Marine rifle platoon and company commander in Vietnam and whose son is a Marine who recently served in Iraq.
Webb wants to prohibit the Pentagon from sending active-duty service members back to Iraq or Afghanistan before they've been back in the United States for as long a period as they spent at war. His measure fell four votes short of 60 in July.
Webb's amendment would make a drawdown more likely by reducing the number of troops available for war duty. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates has said he'd recommend Bush veto it if it passes, saying that drawdowns should be based on the conditions in Iraq.
The Democrats' main Iraq bill is being drafted by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., a West Point graduate and former Army officer.
A previous version called for troop withdrawals to begin in four months and end by April 30, 2008, except for limited troops left to attack terrorists and train Iraqi forces. It fell seven votes short of the 60-vote threshold.
Levin and fellow Democrats have been looking at changing the date for completing the withdrawal from a deadline to a goal. Levin's been looking for a way to do that without sacrificing the Democrats' demand for a significant reduction of troops below the possible 140,000 who'll still be in Iraq when the troops Bush added leave by July.
Switching from a deadline to a goal date risks losing support from some Democrats. For example, Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has said he'd vote only for measures that include firm dates for beginning and ending redeployment.
Levin has said that he doesn't know if Democrats would get the votes they need to pass their attempt to speed withdrawals and that it was unlikely that they'd get the 67 votes they'd need to override a veto.
"But that doesn't mean we shouldn't fight for what we believe in, just because the president may veto it," he said Sunday on CBS's "Face the Nation." "We're engaged in a fight to change the course in Iraq, a course that has not succeeded. We've been there four and a half years. We've lost almost 4,000 troops, seven times that many wounded. We're spending $10 billion a month there. We can't afford to continue the course we're on."
Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky predicted last week that Democrats would again fail to get what he called "an arbitrary withdrawal date, a retreat date, in effect, a memo to our enemies to let them know when we're going to give up."
McConnell said that "simply abandoning the area to al Qaida and Iran" wasn't the way to protect the United States.
Democrats say that Iraq has so strained the military that it's no longer well prepared to respond to crises elsewhere. They also say that an American military solution won't lead to a lasting end to the fighting among Iraqis.
The Levin-Reed plan calls for international diplomacy to nudge Iraqi politicians toward needed compromises.
Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, have proposed limiting troop missions to border protection, counterterrorism and training Iraqis. Fewer forces would be needed.
Meanwhile, the House of Representatives will likely vote on a withdrawal plan with a definite end date later this fall, Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., chairman of the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, said Monday.
Murtha said Republican lawmakers would start "jumping ship" as soon as the primaries are over for the 2008 congressional elections. For now, those who face re-election next year need the support of Republican primary voters, who tend to support the president's Iraq policy. But once they face general-election voters, including war-weary independents, Republican incumbents could feel pressure.
"I think you'll see a change of direction," Murtha said.
"I thought (that in) September we'd have some people change, and then I started thinking about the primaries, and I see what happens to a Republican when they say that we ought to start to get out. They bash them. . . . So until that plays out, we're going to have a problem."