Senate Democrats backtrack, opt not to tackle Iraq in 9'11 Commission bill

Senate Democrats reversed course yesterday and vowed to keep the Iraq war out of the ongoing 9/11 Commission bill debate, but the lack of a consensus approach exposed by the new majority’s move risks alienating anti-war allies and giving political momentum to Republicans.

Democrats first began eyeing the 9/11 Commission measure as a vehicle for binding checks on President Bush’s war strategy during debate on the non-binding resolution billed as their first step in repudiating the White House. Yet Democrats held off on their second step amid GOP insistence on a symbolic vote on troop funding and calls for a clean bill from Sen. Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), who helps maintain their narrow hold on the Senate.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) reiterated yesterday that his members have not settled on an approach to reining in the raging conflict in Iraq, despite Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) openly pursuing a plan to replace the 2002 congressional authorization of force with a narrower mission.

“A lot of senators are working on this,” Reid told reporters. “Nothing has been finalized.”

The only certainty yesterday was that the 9/11 Commission bill would stay Iraq-free, for now. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) echoed Democrats’ intentions, but hinted that whether the 9/11 measure would stay scrubbed of war amendments depends on both leaderships reaching a deal on Iraq votes.

“Senator Reid and I have not yet reached an agreement about how and when to have the Iraq debate, but I think both sides are going to start the 9/11 debate with amendments that are more or less related to the 9/11 bill,” McConnell told reporters.

Backing away from what early reports had implied was a caucus-wide plan to narrow the authorization, however, hampers Senate Democrats as they seek to stress their unity of opposition to the war.

“No one should be concerned about Democrats not sticking together,” Reid said, even as Biden touted his and Levin’s plan in a Boston Globe op-ed that earned a hammering from the Republican National Committee.

One of Reid’s most independent anti-war members strongly defended him: “The majority leader did not do this because the caucus was divided,” Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said. “That is factually false.”

Yet Feingold stopped short of endorsing a retooled Iraq authorization, indicating that he would support a revocation of Bush’s authority in Iraq with exceptions but not a “new mission” that would allow the administration to claim a new mandate.

Meanwhile, Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) plan to place readiness conditions on Iraq deployments to tie the president’s hands seeped across the Capitol and into the Senate’s Iraq deliberations. Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) referred to the Murtha plan, dubbed “slow-bleed” by House Republicans, during his criticism of Democrats yesterday, and one influential anti-war activist suggested that Democratic leaders were abandoning Murtha at their peril.

“There has been at best a tepid response from Democrats,” said former Rep. Tom Andrews (D-Maine), president of Win Without War. “It’s dangerous … you can’t disregard someone as thoughtful and experienced as Jack Murtha, particularly when the American people are behind him.”

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) came to his leadership rival’s defense yesterday, reiterating his support for Murtha’s readiness strategy while acknowledging that he has not yet seen specific language. Hoyer said Rep. Ike Skelton (D-Mo.), the House Armed Services Committee chairman, will examine Biden’s and Levin’s proposal to narrow the war authorization.

Of the four Senate GOP incumbents considered most vulnerable in 2008 by Democratic campaign chief Charles Schumer (N.Y.), two have already ruled out supporting a reworked war authorization: John Sununu (N.H.) and Norm Coleman (Minn.).

“They are looking for an alternative to cutting off funding. … It’s not going to play,” Coleman said yesterday.

Mike Soraghan contributed to this report.