WASHINGTON – A leading Democratic House Iraq war critic said Wednesday he'll soon push legislation that would order U.S. troop withdrawals to begin in two months and predicted Republicans will swing behind it this time.
A vote on Rep. John Murtha's proposal likely will come in September, when Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus delivers a long-anticipated assessment on the war and members of Congress weigh some $600 billion in defense spending requested by President Bush.
Under his plan, Murtha, a close ally of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, said that he envisions troop withdrawals to start in November and take about a year to complete.
The House has passed similar proposals in the past, including one that Bush vetoed. But Murtha said he predicts this vote will be different because of mounting voter frustration with the war and a lack of progress in Iraq.
"This is big time," Murtha, D-Pa., told reporters of the upcoming war debate in September. "When you get to September, this is history. This is when we're going to have a real confrontation with the president trying to work things out."
Bush has not given any indication he is open to a dramatic shift or a major redeployment of troops after September. He instead has talked at length about the need to remain engaged in Iraq to fight al-Qaida and has repeatedly appealed to lawmakers for more patience.
For their part, top U.S. military officers also have indicated that the troop buildup initiated this year may be needed through next summer.
Congressional Republican leaders have been willing to support Bush so far, although they concede keeping their rank-and-file in line behind the president will become considerably tougher come September.
In response to Murtha's proposal, House Republican Leader John Boehner said Democrats were ignoring progress in Iraq.
"If they are not listening to reports from our generals today, how does anyone believe they will make an honest and objective decision in September?" Boehner, R-Ohio, said. "Our national security is not a political football, and Republicans aren't going to treat it as such."
Murtha counters that he thinks Bush and GOP members will have no choice. To maintain current troop levels through 2008, Murtha predicted that combat tours would have to be extended from 15 months to 18 months — a politically unsavory position to take on an already deeply unpopular war.
The Defense Department has said that extending combat tours of troops would be a last resort.
Murtha said he will propose his measure as an amendment to the $460 billion annual military funding bill, which the House will begin debating next week and probably finish in September. The bill does not include the $142 billion that Bush requested for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which the House plans to consider separately.
Dividing military spending into two bills leaves open the possibility that Congress could withhold all or portions of the combat funds.
"We may decide in September we're not satisfied with what Gen. Petraeus says and we may hold it up," Murtha said.
In addition to the anti-war measure, Murtha said he also wants to add a provision that would require troops meet certain standards before being deployed and cut in half the $225 million budget for the Guantanamo Bay military prison.
Murtha's proposals keep with the Democratic strategy of taking an all-or-nothing approach on Iraq — a tack that leaves the party's members empty-handed for now but keeps it in lockstep with demands by anti-war groups.
Earlier this month, the House voted 223-201 to order troops out of Iraq beginning in 120 days. But the bill stalled in the Senate, where Democrats hold a thinner majority and Republicans blocked the measure from advancing.
Instead of embracing bipartisan alternatives, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid dropped the Iraq debate altogether. Pelosi, D-Calif., turned her attention to other war-related Democratic bills.
The House on Wednesday voted 399-24 to pass a bill by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., that would ban permanent bases in Iraq. By week's end, the House Armed Services Committee planned to draft legislation for a vote next week that would insist troops be given sufficient time at home in between combat tours.
Left on the cutting room floor are several bipartisan proposals that could challenge Bush on Iraq and which have attracted GOP support.
Among them is a House proposal that would require Bush to deliver within 60 days a new military strategy that would end major combat and refocuses troops on fighting terrorists. Rep. Phil English, R-Pa., this week signed on as a co-sponsor.
Sens. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., and John Warner, R-Va., support a similar proposal.