WASHINGTON – Democrats know they might lose this month's showdown with President Bush on legislation to pull troops out of Iraq. But with 2008 elections in mind, majority Democrats says it is only a matter of time before they will get their way.
Senior Democrats are calculating that if they keep the pressure on, eventually more Republicans will jump ship and challenge the president — or lose their seats to Democratic contenders.
"It's at least my belief that they are going to have to break because they're going to look extinction, some of them, in the eye," said Sen. Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., of his Republican colleagues.
Added Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev.: "We're going to pick up Senate seats as a result of this war."
The House and Senate are expected to negotiate war spending legislation this week. The Democratic proposal would approve $96 billion in military money, mostly for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and set a timetable for troop withdrawal.
The House wants to end combat operations before September 2008; senators voted to set a nonbinding goal of ending combat by March 31, 2008.
As the final bill is negotiated, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Reid plan to meet with President Bush at the White House on Wednesday. They are expected to talk past each other, with Bush refusing to negotiate a timetable and Democrats insisting on one.
"I look forward to hearing how members of Congress plan to meet their responsibilities and provide our troops with the funding they need," Bush said Saturday in his weekly radio address.
Bush has pledged to veto the legislation if it sets a timetable on the war or includes extraneous spending, including the $74 million proposed by House lawmakers for peanut producers.
Republicans have promised to back the president, leaving Democrats short of the two-thirds majority needed to override the veto.
"When Americans went to the polls last November, they did not vote for politicians to substitute their judgment for the judgment of our commanders on the ground," Bush said. "And they certainly did not vote to make peanut storage projects part of the funding for our troops."
Democrats say the fight is not lost.
In a recent internal memo, Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel, a member of the House Democratic leadership, told colleagues "there are areas of agreement that should offer fertile ground for negotiation and compromise."
Democrats also are looking at the long term because aides privately acknowledge the votes are not there right now to overcome a veto.
"It's not going to prevail on one vote or two, but it will after five, six, seven," Schumer said.
As evidence, Democrats point to past votes on Iraq. On March 15, all but one Senate Republican — Gordon Smith of Oregon — voted against a measure calling for troops to leave by March 31, 2008. Two weeks later, when the same proposal was added to the war spending bill, Democrats picked up support from Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb.
"It has been a way that we have moved forward," Reid said. "Not with a large number of Republicans, but with Republicans. We have many other Republicans who are extremely nervous."
Democrats also point to the polls.
Six in 10 people in the U.S. said they favor a timetable to remove all troops within six months, and the number grows to 71 percent if all troops are removed within two years, according to recent AP-Ipsos polling.
Republicans say they think they have time to see if Bush's new strategy works before there is a significant political fallout. Bush is sending some 30,000 additional troops to Iraq to stabilize Baghdad and provide enough security for reconstruction projects.
"As the situation improves there, and I believe it will, then we can move on to other issues and be confident the American people will realize we did the right thing," said Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott, R-Mo.
But the recent bombing inside the heavily fortified Green Zone and other violent attacks, despite the added security, are likely to test the patience of many in Washington.
Bush probably has at least four months before he might see more GOP defections. Military officials said it may be late summer or early fall before results of the troop buildup are seen. So far, Republican skeptics of Bush's strategy say they are willing to wait.
Republicans also have some political cover when opposing the Democrats' anti-war proposal because it would not take into account any progress made on the ground. While most people in the U.S. want the war to end, polls indicate they are split on how soon troops should leave. Also, sentiment toward the war could change if Bush's plan pays dividends.
Sen. John Sununu, R-N.H., who faces a potentially tough re-election bid next year, said he would consider attaching strings to U.S. funds used for economic development. But so far, he said, the Democratic proposals are too cut and dry.
"Our military should not remain in Iraq a single day longer than is absolutely necessary, but the timetable for bringing them home should be driven by security conditions, not partisan posturing," Sununu said after voting against the war spending bill.
In any event, both Democrats and Republicans say time is running short.
"This is the last chance the Iraqis have to get it right," said Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky.
"They also must surely know we are not going be there forever, even though we don't plan to have a retreat date" in legislation, he added.