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Debate in Congress over Iraq war grows louder

WASHINGTON—If Congress ever turns against the war in Iraq, analysts may look back at this week as a turning point.

Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., on Wednesday urged setting a May 15 deadline to withdraw U.S. troops unless Iraq forms a unity government, and even if Iraq does form a government, Kerry urged complete American withdrawal by year's end. His twin-deadline proposal makes the 2004 presidential nominee the most prominent Democrat pushing for early full withdrawal.

At the same time, three Republicans in the House of Representatives endorsed a resolution calling for a robust and lengthy congressional debate on Iraq. While they're far short of the votes needed to force such a debate, a coalition of 40 anti-war activist groups is mounting a national campaign to drum up public pressure behind the resolution. That campaign targets lawmakers as they head home for a two-week Easter recess to listen to constituents in this election year, when Republicans are already anxious that they might lose control of Congress in November.

Grassroots America is sour on Iraq, polls show, and residents of 24 Wisconsin towns gave more proof of that this week by voting for resolutions urging immediate withdrawal of U.S. troops, while voters in eight towns rejected such a call.

None of these developments alone will shift policy. But taken together, they suggest that anti-war politics could be intensifying—and that Washington may be catching up with anti-war sentiment across the country.

"It's making Republicans in Congress more antsy," Republican strategist Frank Luntz said, "and making Democrats bolder and more aggressive."

The majority of Americans turned against the war months ago. A recent Gallup poll for CNN and USA Today shows that 19 percent want troops out immediately and 35 percent want them out by the end of the year.

And Americans are growing pessimistic.

Slightly more than half of them, 51 percent, think the United States is losing ground in its effort to defeat insurgents in Iraq, according to a recent Pew Research Center survey. That's up from 38 percent in January. And 70 percent think President Bush lacks a clear plan for victory.

Most leading Democrats have long worried that taking a stand against the war or calling for early withdrawal would label them weak on national security. But Kerry disdained such reservations when discussing his plan in an interview Wednesday with Knight Ridder. He first disclosed his proposal Wednesday in an opinion piece he wrote for The New York Times.

"One of the reasons I decided that the time had come to lay this out is that you have to break this logjam," Kerry said in the interview. "There is a reluctance by people here to push this envelope, and I think you have to push it.

"No young American should be sacrificed because Iraqi politicians are screwing around unwilling to compromise. So you have to get tough. You have to give them a date. They have only responded to dates.

"The only way now to get this thing on track, in my judgment, is to be tough and say, `Look, our young soldiers are not going to lose their lives and our taxpayers aren't going to pour billions of dollars so you guys can sit around every day and fight with each other.'"

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., another potential 2008 presidential candidate, also has proposed a Dec. 31 deadline for withdrawal, but he lacks Kerry's stature as the party's most recent presidential nominee.

In the House, Republican Reps. Walter Jones of North Carolina, Ron Paul of Texas and Wayne Gilchrest of Maryland announced their support for a Democratic resolution that would force an immediate, 17-hour-long House debate on the war aimed at requiring a plan to get troops out.

"There are those of us in both parties who want to meet our constitutional responsibility, and that is to discuss and debate the present and the future of our commitment in Iraq," Jones said.

"Nobody, including us, is for pulling out. We're asking for a transition plan for when the Iraqis can take over the responsibility. We're not hearing that plan. We're hearing that, well, maybe the next president can deal with it," Jones said, referring to a Bush comment last month. "That's not satisfactory."

Said Gilchrest: "The public is clearly concerned, and there's palpable apprehension every day about the war in Iraq. And we have to dig deeper than just saying we supported the troops."

House Republican leaders have blocked consideration of the resolution, introduced by Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii. He said he had about 80 signatures on a petition to force a House debate, but was still far short of the 218 needed.

A coalition of liberal groups called Win Without War said Wednesday that it had begun radio and newspaper ads in Minnesota and Ohio supporting the resolution and its activists would work nationwide to pressure lawmakers on it over the next two weeks. The coalition includes, the National Council of Churches, the NAACP and the National Organization for Women.

"This is the heartland. We want to challenge our lawmakers. We're targeting members of Congress who are not on record in support of this. We want to build on this," said Tom Andrews, the national director of the coalition and a former Democratic congressman from Maine.


(The CNN/USATODAY/Gallup poll of 1,001 adults was conducted March 10-12 and had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points. The Pew Research Center survey of 1,405 adults was conducted March 8-12 and had an error margin of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)


(Funk covers Washington for The Charlotte Observer.)


(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): John Kerry, Walter Jones