WASHINGTON – Senate Democratic leaders refusing to declare any successes in Iraq as a result of the troop surge offered stinging rhetoric on Thursday over Republican refusal to commit to a timeline for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
At the same time, however, the head of the Senate Democrats, Majority Leader Harry Reid, suggested they may need to take a practical approach to achieve some badly-needed successes on the Senate floor regarding Iraq. This means looking for compromises to get with Republicans on board with a redeployment plan, and get past the 60 votes needed to squash a filibuster.
"This is the time to see if Republicans will keep their word. There's been some talk of Democrats backing off. We're not backing off of anything. We believe that the American people understand and certainly we understand that we need 60 votes," Reid told reporters.
"I will not support the bipartisan piece of legislation unless it forces the president to do something," Reid added, later qualifying his statement. "Conceptually, I'm willing to support bipartisan legislation if, in fact, it causes the president to change course in some manner and variety."
That compromise earned criticism from Democratic presidential candidate John Edwards.
“In 2006, the American people elected a Democratic Congress to change course and end this war. It’s the whole reason the American people voted for change. Yet, 10 months after the election, we still have the status quo and Congress has still failed to do the people’s will. That might be the way they do it inside the Beltway, but it’s not the American way," the former North Carolina senator said, adding that a small withdrawal of the surge will not be enough to satisfy anti-war Americans.
Democrats are looking to take up some legislation on Iraq beginning the week of Sept. 17, but were unclear about whether it would stand alone or be attached to an authorization bill for the Department of Defense. That bill, however, has a lot of matters unrelated to Iraq, including closing Guantanamo Bay, habeus corpus rights for detainees and other issues so may not be the appropriate vehicle.
While legislation is being crafted, Democrats also sought to lower any expectations that President Bush has tried to build ahead of the progress report being delivered to Congress next week by Gen. David Petraeus, the head of Multinational Forces in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker.
Democrats pointed to a Washington Post report out Thursday that suggested that the White House is cherry-picking its reports on violence in Iraq. Democratic leaders also noted that two other reports recently delivered to Capitol Hill offer a more pessimistic analysis of the situation than is expected in the "Bush report."
"There is a consistency to each of these reports — political progress and stability in Iraq continue to be virtually non-existent. We can have debates about statistics and specifics about the levels of violence in Iraq, but what there is not debate about is the lack of political progress," said Illinois Rep. Rahm Emanuel.
Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York highlighted the recently-released Government Accountability Office report on Iraq's progress, which states that only three of 18 benchmarks laid out by the U.S. Congress for the Iraqi government have been satisfied. Another four have been partially achieved.
Sen. Dick Durbin, the majority whip, highlighted the report by retired Marine Gen. Jim Jones and its assessment that virtually no national police force exists in Iraq. The report recommends that all 25,000 members of the national police in Iraq be disbanded because the force has been infiltrated by Shiite militias. Jones added the Iraqi army won't be able to operate on its own for another 12-18 months, which could mean a longer stay for U.S. forces.
That's too long for Durbin, who said that during his trip to Iraq in August, the commanding general at Power Base Murray, south of Baghdad, told him that he has "no plan (for proceeding) after 15 months."
Durbin said the general told him "15 months is too long. I can't keep the attention of these troops for 15 months. At the end of 12 months, these young soldiers are thinking about their wives, their babies, and going home."
Durbin added that from the beginning of June to the end of August, the U.S. has lost 264 troops, "the highest number of fatalities ever in that period and more than double the number of Americans killed in Iraq in summer of 2004.
"To argue that the surge has brought peace to the streets of Iraq is an isolated example here and there. But overall the situation is very perilous," said Durbin.
But supporters of the surge said that the generals should decide the best time to leave Iraq, and when asked by Sen. John McCain, a Republican presidential hopeful, whether a timeline was a good idea, Jones told the Senate Armed Services Committee on Thursday that it was not.
"There's a lot of people who are armchair generals who reside here in the air-conditioned comfort of Capitol Hill, who somehow do not trust the judgment of some of the finest leaders that our nation has produced," said McCain, the top Republican on the Armed Services Committee.
Durbin also offered a stinging rebuke of the Maliki government, saying, "By every objective measure the government of Iraqis have failed during the course of this surge. It is ridiculous to call this a government of national unity when they have pushed the Sadr Shiites out and the Sunnis have walked out. There is no government of national unity. While our troops are fighting and dying in numbers that are totally unacceptable, the Iraqis continue to fail to put the government together to bring stability. That is a fact."
But that "fact" is something the Iraqi ambassador to the U.S. disputed a day earlier after arriving back in Washington from his home country.
"There is progress on the laws.The Iraqi parliament has resumed its meetings yesterday and it has a heavy agenda of very important laws to look at. I think there is serious intent in political circles in Iraq ... to move on these things," said Amb. Samir Shakir M. Subaida'ie, noting that U.S. circles are accustomed to demanding quick gratification even when they can't achieve it on their own.
"People in this country expect us to produce miracles in no time at all while there are issues here that they've been struggling with for years. Immigration law, for example, has taken a long time for it not to be produced. So, you Americans have helped us to acquire this thing called democracy, so we have to play the game, and this game unfortunately takes time," Subaida'ie said.
FOX News' Jennifer Griffin, Trish Turner and Sharon Kehnemui Liss contributed to this report.