WASHINGTON – House Democrats have drafted new Iraq legislation they hope will appeal to Republicans fed up with the war: Start withdrawing troops in two months but leave it up to President Bush to decide when to complete the pullout.
The vote will come next week, as members take up a $460 billion bill covering military spending for 2008. Another vote could come again in September, after Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus delivers a long-anticipated assessment on the war and Congress considers a $142 billion measure needed to finance the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"This is big time," Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., said of the upcoming fall debate. "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."
The House has passed similar anti-war measures in the past, but has been unable to push the legislation through the Senate, where Democrats hold a slimmer majority and Republicans have routinely blocked such bills from advancing.
Most recently, the House approved legislation that would have required troop withdrawals to begin this November and finish by April 1.
Under his latest plan, Murtha said he envisions troop withdrawals to start in November and take about a year to complete. A draft of his proposal did not include a firm end date.
In addition to the anti-war measure, Murtha said he also wants to propose next week amendments that would require troops to meet certain standards before being deployed and cut in half the $225 million budget for the Guantanamo Bay military prison.
The prospects of Murtha's troop withdrawal measure passing next week were unclear, as Republicans have said they are willing to hold off until September and Democrats questioned whether it goes far enough.
"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?" asked Rep. John Boehner, R-Ohio, his party's leader. "Our national security is not a political football, and Republicans aren't going to treat it as such."
Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., a leading anti-war advocate, said she wants to keep the April deadline.
"The House voted two weeks ago on a withdrawal measure with a clear timeline, and I don't know why we would back away from that," said Lee.
Murtha said he has his sights set on September and thinks that by then Republicans and the White House will jump on board. If Bush were 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 extending combat tours of troops would be a last resort.
Bush has not given any indication he is open to a dramatic shift or a major redeployment of troops after September. Instead, he has talked extensively 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.
Also come September, Murtha said it is possible Democrats may not want to continue funding the war, or fund it in installments.
"We may decide in September we're not satisfied with what Gen. Petraeus says and we may hold it up," he said.
With Republicans unwilling to consider strong anti-war bills just yet, Democrats pushed other Iraq-related measures to show voters they are focused on trying to end the war.
The House voted 399-24 on Wednesday to pass a bill proposed by Lee 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.
Meanwhile, Iraq's ambassador to Washington, Samir Sumaidaie, told reporters Wednesday that he is making a case in Congress and elsewhere for extending the troop increase, despite the shifting political climate.
"Iraqi leaders are acutely aware of the political debate in Washington, that there is the possibility of a change in policy" and a reduction in U.S. troops, Sumaidaie said. "I think it is fair to say they are very concerned about that. Iraqi forces are not yet capable of holding the fort on their own."
The diplomat also complained that the United States has been slow to provide weapons and other equipment requested by Iraqi armed forces and police, and said the delay is at cross-purposes with the U.S. goal of making Iraqis responsible for their own security.
Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said he has promised to work on getting the equipment moved to the Iraqis more quickly. Asked if the delay was due to Pentagon bureaucracy, Pace said no, adding that it had more to do with the recent increase in size of the Iraqi forces.