WASHINGTON – Congressional Democrats have put on the back burner legislation ordering troops home from Iraq and turned their attention to war-related proposals that Republicans are finding hard to reject.
The legislative agenda marks a dramatic shift for party leaders who vowed repeated votes to end combat and predicted Republicans would eventually join them. But with Democrats still lacking enough votes to bring troops home, the party runs the risk of concluding its first year in control of Congress with little to show for its tough anti-war rhetoric.
"We can no longer approach the discussion on Iraq as a partisan issue," said Rep. John Tanner, a conservative Democrat from Tennessee. "Our soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Guardsmen aren't fighting as Democrats or Republicans but as Americans."
In the past week, the House passed two bills intended to curb misconduct by contractors in Iraq and one proposal by Tanner and Rep. Neil Abercrombie, D-Hawaii, that requires updates on the Bush administration's plans for the eventual withdrawal of U.S. combat forces.
Following last week's rejection of a proposal by Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., to cut off money for combat, the Senate is expected to follow suit with similar bipartisan measures.
Delayed until early next year is debate on the $190 billion the military says it needs to fund the war through September 2008.
There is little doubt that Democrats are biding their time and deliberating their next step. Democrats are divided on whether to continue paying for a war they oppose, or cut off the money and be attacked politically for refusing to support the troops.
They also hope that Republicans will grow increasingly nervous about the war's effect on the 2008 elections. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., who chairs the panel that oversees military funding, predicted last month that GOP lawmakers will jump ship after the primaries end.
"I see what happens to a Republican when they say we ought to start to get out," Murtha said. "They bash them. I mean they attack them viscerally and of course they're the ones that nominate them. Until that plays out we're going to have a problem."
Democrats calculate that the Pentagon has enough money for the war, through February or March, by borrowing against its annual budget. Military officials warn that doing so can disrupt vital programs, such as base support and training exercises, and cost more money in the long run.
Democrats say they are still challenging President Bush on the war. The House on Tuesday passed legislation by Abercrombie intended to make it easier to convict private contractors of fraud.
The bill, approved by a 375-3 vote, would create a federal criminal statute banning contracting abuse associated with military operations and reconstruction efforts. It also would ensure federal courts have jurisdiction in all cases, closing what Abercrombie says is a loophole in existing law that has let many contractors off the hook.
A similar measure by Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., was approved in April by the Senate Judiciary Committee. A spokesman for Leahy said Republican objections have prevented it from getting a quick floor vote.