Senate Democrats Deliberate Next Step on Iraq as Vote Nears

Democrats facing rejection of a proposal to cut off money for the Iraq war are deliberating their next step in trying to rebuild anti-war momentum.

In recent months, violence in Iraq has declined and the Baghdad government has made small steps toward political reconciliation, including plans to hold provincial elections on Oct. 1. While Democratic voters remain largely against the war, the security improvement has helped to cool anxiety among Republicans and stave off legislation demanding that troops start coming home.

The Senate was expected to vote Tuesday on a proposal to order troop withdrawals to begin within 120 days. With that legislation's failure almost assured and lacking a veto-proof majority in Congress even if such a proposal passed, Democrats are talking about whether to shift their strategy. Instead of repeating losing votes on legislation tying money to troop withdrawals, many party members want to focus more on the policy issues surrounding Iraq, including the preparedness of U.S. troops and reining in private contractors.

Top Army officials are expected to testify Tuesday before the Senate on the health of the ground force.

Another desire by many Democrats is to tie the ailing economy to the war. A coalition of anti-war groups said this week that it plans to spend more than $20 million this year to convince voters that the Republican party's support for the war is bad for their wallets.

Still, other Democrats, including Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., say they want to pursue more votes to end funding for the war. Feingold sponsored Tuesday's measure.

According to aides, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., who co-sponsored Feingold's proposal, agreed to stage Tuesday's vote in exchange for Feingold's earlier support of a defense policy bill. The measure is expected to fall short of the 60 votes needed to pass.

The effort comes as anti-war sentiments among voters has taken a back seat to the economy.

Anti-war activists say they believe Americans are increasingly aware of the economic burden that the Iraq war has caused. This election season, they say, voters will blame Republicans for supporting the war at a time of rising health care and college costs and in the midst of a mortgage foreclosure crisis.

"Leaders who do not recognize this connection will be at a disadvantage come election day," said Jeff Blum, director of USAction, which plans to spend $10 million this year on organizing a grass-roots effort against Republican candidates.

Blum said the group intends to dispatch hundreds of thousands of volunteers to go door to door to convince voters that the GOP's war effort is hurting the economy., another anti-war group, says it will spend at least $5 million targeting congressional seats, including Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, John Sununu of New Hampshire, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Mitch McConnell of Kentucky.

Brad Woodhouse, head of Americans United for Change, estimates his group will spend about $8.5 million, focusing primarily on political advertisements.

Jon Soltz, an Army reservist who heads of, said his group will be running an ad in the Washington, D.C., area that will feature a female Iraq veteran urging Sen. John McCain, the expected GOP nominee for president, to abandon his commitment to Iraq.

"The Iraq war is basically a retreat policy against al-Qaida and (terrorist leader Osama) bin Laden," Soltz said.