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Democrats struggle to gain support for their Iraq policy

WASHINGTON—A mini-drama in a congressional hallway this week shed some light on the difficulties that Democrats are having in keeping their promise to change the course on Iraq.

They say they have a strategy to reach that goal, but it will take time to line up enough support to pressure President Bush.

"You have all the power! End the war," activist Maureen Murphy of Newtonville, Mass., said Thursday after waiting nearly five hours for a moment to face off with Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., a Vietnam veteran and longtime military supporter who's been calling for a pullout from Iraq since 2005.

"We don't have all the power," Murtha replied gently. "It takes votes."

Murtha and the House of Representatives leadership have been working for days to urge conservative and liberal Democrats to vote for a war-spending bill that calls for most combat troops to leave Iraq by September 2008—or earlier if Iraq's government fails to staunch the violence that's killing its citizens.

The vote, likely on Thursday, is expected to be close. Democrats hold a 233-201 House majority, with one vacancy, but some liberal Democrats will vote against the bill because they want a full pullout this year. Some conservative Democrats, meanwhile, aren't persuaded that redeployment should be attached to a bill that funds the war. Almost all Republicans will oppose the measure.

On the opposite side of the Capitol, where Democrats command a 51-49 Senate majority, a measure to redeploy most combat forces, while leaving behind others to fight terrorists and train Iraqis, was defeated on Thursday 50-48. That was 12 votes short of the 60 needed for passage under Senate rules.

Democrats backing the measures in both chambers say persistence will pay off. In the House, Democrats are working to get members of their party to vote for the spending bill with its anti-war constraints.

That bill also says that the Department of Defense should abide by its own guidelines to send only fully prepared troops into combat, but it allows for waivers if Bush needs to deploy units that don't rate as fully capable. It provides all the war funds that Bush requested, nearly $100 billion, and adds money for fighting in Afghanistan, military and veterans' health care, and improving military readiness.

In the Senate, Democrats need quite a few Republicans to join them to get the 60 votes they need. Their strategy is to sustain a series of debates and hearings to educate the public about the problems involved in keeping American soldiers in a country with a weak sectarian government and an ongoing civil war. They call instead for diplomacy to help forge a national reconciliation plan.

Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., a war opponent and presidential aspirant, said he thinks enough Republicans will change in time.

"You've just got to keep pounding and pounding and pounding," Biden said. By fall, he said, if Iraqi factions keep killing each other and the government doesn't take steps to reach a political settlement, there's little chance that Republican senators will stick with the president's plan to increase U.S. military involvement.

"We're going to keep at this. There's no silver bullet," agreed Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y. Senate Democrats would need 67 votes to override a presidential veto, he noted, and "we're not going to get close to that."

But Democrats will "ratchet up the pressure" on the president and his fellow Republicans for the "change in course that the American people in November 2006 demanded," Schumer said.

Some Republican senators who voted against a redeployment target date nonetheless expressed reservations about the current strategy.

Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., said that the United States must do more to shift responsibility to the Iraqi government.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., who gets classified briefings on Iraq as a member of the Intelligence Committee, said that in a few months it'll be clear whether the military plan in Baghdad is working. If not, he said, the policy would have to shift to containing the war.

Opinion polls find that Americans are worried and frustrated about Iraq, but divided on what to do. The latest Pew poll found 53 percent of Americans want to get out of Iraq "as soon as possible," but 42 percent said troops should remain until the country is stable. About 60 percent of Americans believe the Iraq war was a mistake and favor withdrawing all U.S. troops by the end of 2008, according to a Gallup poll earlier this month.

Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., said he hears a lot about Iraq in his district outside Atlanta. He's a member of the "Blue Dogs" group of fiscally conservative Democrats and a founder of the Democratic Study Group on National Security. He said his constituents include many defense workers and military people. He supports the House Democrats' Iraq plan and has pressed other Blue Dogs to vote for it.

"The only alternative is to rubber-stamp what the president wants," Scott said. "Do we do nothing, or push the ball a little further to the next phase?"


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.