'08 Dems up ante on Iraq

Three Democrats who will likely face off for the White House suggested yesterday that they want to go further than their Senate leaders on Iraq, calling for a stronger effort to cap the U.S. military presence than the nonbinding resolution that will be marked up next week.

Three Democrats who will likely face off for the White House suggested yesterday that they want to go further than their Senate leaders on Iraq, calling for a stronger effort to cap the U.S. military presence than the nonbinding resolution that will be marked up next week.

As Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), Barack Obama (D-Ill.), and Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) detailed their plans on Iraq, other Democrats outlined their own bipartisan resolution, which is backed by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, Jr.  (D-Del.) will bring that resolution, co-written with Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), to his panel one day after President Bush’s State of the Union.

But Biden and Levin’s partnership with Hagel vied for primacy with other Democratic proposals to force congressional approval of new troops in Iraq. Biden plans to formally launch a White House bid this year, and Hagel also could join the race soon.

Clinton, recently returned from a codel to Iraq and Afghanistan, vowed to support the nonbinding measure but said Congress would “have to move to tougher requirements on the administration to get their attention.”

Clinton is readying legislation that would require Bush to get congressional consent for any increases above this month’s troop levels, similar to a plan Dodd announced late Tuesday, and set several other conditions for political and security progress before Iraqi troops received new funding. Dodd, however, may be able to preempt Clinton by offering his bill as an amendment in Foreign Relations, where Clinton has no vote.

“I want to reach out to her,” Dodd said of Clinton, who would be the third Democratic cosponsor of his bill, after Sens. Barbara Boxer (Calif.) and Edward Kennedy (Mass.). Kennedy has offered his own legislation that would allow Congress to shut off funding for the troop increase, which Clinton and several fellow Democratic senators have stopped short of endorsing.

Progressive Democrats leaning on their party leaders to use the congressional majority as a means to end U.S. involvement in Iraq cautiously hailed Clinton’s decision to take a position the 2008 presidential contender called “consistent … but [with] more teeth.”

“Well – yay,” said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), Congressional Progressive Caucus co-chairwoman. “To me, this is obviously a reaction to the election on Nov. 7, when the public clearly said they expect Democrats to make changes in Iraq.”

One House Democratic aide remarked on the political necessity for Clinton to take a strong stance against the troop “surge” strategy as she readies a White House run and Obama, another Foreign Relations member, jolts Capitol Hill with his 2008 exploratory bid.

“It would be unimaginable for a Democratic presidential candidate not to oppose the president’s plan … and work to bring our troops home,” the aide said.

Obama said he is reading both Dodd’s and Kennedy’s proposals to forge his own course on Iraq and indicated he could prepare amendments to the nonbinding resolution for next week’s markup. In a later statement, Obama expanded on his criticism of new troop commitments to move even closer to Clinton’s position.

“I not only favor capping the number of  U.S. troops in Iraq, but believe it’s imperative that we begin the phased redeployment I called for two months ago, and intend to introduce legislation that does just that,” Obama said.

While Democrats maneuvered for a power position that could assert the new Congress’ authority before Bush’s military increase is complete, Republicans sought to keep their conference united in advance of the committee vote. GOP senators already critical of the surge, particularly those facing reelection pressures in 2008, left the door open for more to follow Hagel in support of his nonbinding resolution.

“There is some time to have further discussions” before next Wednesday’s markup, Foreign Relations member Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is up for reelection, said. “There are some things in the resolution that some of us who don’t support a surge aren’t comfortable with.”

The crux of the discomfort is the word “escalating” to describe the White House plan in Iraq, which appears in the nonbinding resolution after several introductory findings. Some Republicans consider the term too partisan and political, akin to Democratic disapproval of “cut and run,” but Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) did not appear to share her colleagues’ concerns.

“A troop increase does represent an escalation,” said Snowe, who will back the nonbinding resolution.

Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), a Foreign Relations member already fielding reelection challenges, declined to comment on the nonbinding resolution until its language was publicly released. Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who may be challenged for reelection by Rep. Tom Allen (D-Maine) told reporters she has not decided how she would vote on the Biden-Levin-Hagel measure. Allen voted against the 2002 Iraq war resolution.

Several Foreign Relations Republicans met early yesterday with Stephen Hadley, Bush’s national security adviser, at the White House to discuss strategy on the resolution. Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), a former Armed Services chairman and foreign-policy elder statesman, said he would brief GOP senators on his own plans late yesterday for a resolution responding to the “surge.”

“[I am] not supportive of what Democrats are trying to do in their resolution,” Warner said yesterday en route to the Republican policy lunch, where Vice President Dick Cheney was a guest. He said his plan would use the bipartisan Iraq Study Group report and “basically [rework] it to make the president’s program work.”

Rep. John McHugh (R-N.Y.), who accompanied Clinton and Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) to the Middle East, pointed to the forthcoming war supplemental as a means to rein in the Bush administration’s open-ended commitment in Iraq. But McHugh acknowledged that Congress would have little to no time to cap funding for the surge before more troops arrived: “We’re in a congressional catch-22.”