WASHINGTON – Fissures in the Democratic Party over Iraq will be on display Wednesday when the Senate takes up two proposals to withdraw U.S. forces, touching off an election-year showdown between Republicans and Democrats.
"Setting a deadline to redeploy U.S. troops from Iraq is necessary for success in Iraq," Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democrats' 2004 presidential candidate, said in remarks planned for his introduction of a proposal that would require U.S. combat forces to begin leaving the war zone immediately and be out of Iraq completely by July 1, 2007.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid and most of his rank-and-file colleagues do not exactly agree.
They back a separate nonbinding resolution that would not set such a hard-and-fast deadline. It would simply call for — not require — the administration to begin a phased redeployment of U.S. forces this year.
"It's not a cut-and-run strategy. It does not set a fixed timetable or an arbitrary deadline for the redeployment of our troops," said Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, ranking Democrat on the Armed Services Committee. To that end, Levin said, "We believe it represents where a majority of our caucus is."
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, said Wednesday that while neither measure was likely to pass, "we need this debate ... it's good and healthy for the Senate and the country." But while there is great pressure in the U.S. for a troop withdrawal, the Iraqis are not ready to stand on their own, he said.
"I understand that this is an even-numbered year, an election is coming up and all of us are for withdrawal but it's got to be how we leave, not when we leave," McCain said on ABC television's "Good Morning America."
White House counselor Dan Bartlett said that while there is "a lot of heated rhetoric in Washington," an immediate troop withdrawal "will only put our country at more risk."
"Leaders here in Washington who voted for this war have to continue to stand up and say that we're go to support these troops at the very difficult moment we're in," Bartlett said Wednesday on NBC television's "Today" show.
While neither Democratic proposal is expected to win enough votes to be attached as an amendment to an annual military measure pending in the Senate, both are drawing ridicule from Republicans.
They lumped Democrats into two groups — what they called the "cut and run" crowd backing the Kerry position and the "cut and jog" folks supporting the other proposal.
Still, Kerry's proposal, co-sponsored by Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat, has attracted at least six other Democratic backers, reflecting a growing sense among some senators that the administration must tell the increasingly frustrated public when the conflict will end.
"The Senate's finally catching up," said Feingold, who last summer was the first Democratic senator to call for a withdrawal timetable.
Despite the conflicting proposals, Senate Democrats downplayed differences over Iraq within their ranks.
"We all agree there should be a change in the course of the war. We all agree that there should be redeployment starting sooner rather than later," said Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
As Democrats see it, the only issues they do not agree on is exactly when to start withdrawing troops — immediately or not — and whether there should be a date when all troops must be out of Iraq.
Republicans relish the forthcoming debate on Iraq and are seeking political advantage as they try to hang onto control of the House and Senate in the November elections.
"Leaving Iraq to the terrorists is simply not an option. Surrendering is not a solution," Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee said Tuesday. "We cannot retreat. We cannot surrender. We cannot go wobbly. The price is far too high."
Senate Democrats sought to write a resolution that could get wide support among Democrats after Kerry and Feingold, potential 2008 Democratic presidential candidates, separately said they would introduce proposals for a quick withdrawal of troops. The hope was that Democrats could stand united on Iraq.
The Senate debate comes a week after the Republican-controlled Senate and House engineered back-to-back votes on Iraq that forced lawmakers in both parties to go on record on the war.
In the end, both chambers of Congress soundly rejected timetables for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq — foreshadowing the likely fate of the two Democratic proposals.