Petraeus has spoken; where are the Democrats?

Will they rise to the challenge? Or will we just do this all over again in March?


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Tim Grieve
September 12, 2007 3:41PM (UTC)

So we've heard what Gen. David Petraeus has in mind for Iraq: Try to get back to something like pre-"surge" troop levels by July 2008, but don't hold me to it with a binding timeline, and I can't possibly predict what will happen after that. And we've got a pretty good idea of what George W. Bush will propose later this week: What Petraeus said, but layered with even more outs and qualifiers along the way.

So how will Congress respond?

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As far as we know, the only pieces of legislation introduced in response to Petraeus' testimony so far are two Republicans resolutions condemning MoveOn for its "Betray Us" ad. The Democrats? After meeting with the president at the White House Tuesday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi said it's an "insult to the intelligence of the American people" to call Petraeus' 2006-by-2008 plan "a new direction in Iraq." What's she going to do about it? "We will, again, fight for a new direction," she said. But does that mean she'll try to condition approval of the president's $200 billion supplemental war funding request on such a change of direction? Pelosi said the Democrats would be discussing that "at later date."

A later date? A reporter noted that there were around 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq when voters gave Democrats control of Congress in November 2006 and that it's looking like there will be around 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq in November 2008. In light of that, the reporter asked, "How do you describe your stewardship of Congress as anything other than a failure to make the president change course?" Pelosi snapped back: "What a lovely objective question on the part of the press." Then she said that the Democrats in Congress had, in fact, succeeded in "chang[ing] the debate on Iraq in this country."

One could argue that it's the other way around, of course. The voters changed the debate; the poll questions they answered began showing that they wanted a change in direction, and the ballots they cast made that change possible. Pelosi says, essentially, that the voters haven't done enough: Because the voters haven't given Democrats 60 votes in the Senate, they can't overcome a Republican filibuster. "It's the 60-vote requirement," Pelosi complained Tuesday. "We apologize to no one," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid chimed in. "We're sorry we don't have the support of Republicans."

But with majorities in the House and the Senate, Democrats could simply refuse to pass any further funding for the war unless the president agreed to whatever timetable they want for bringing the troops home. Will they do that? Probably not, but it's not because the Republicans have some procedural tool for blocking them. It's because they don't have the political will to do it.

So does anyone have any other ideas? As CQ Politics reports this morning, Democratic Sens. Carl Levin and Jack Reed are working on a bill that could require Bush "to begin substantial reductions in U.S. forces in 120 days" without actually defining what "substantial reductions" are and probably without setting an end date for a complete withdrawal.

Isn't that pretty much what Petraeus has recommended?

Yes, CQ Politics says, "but Reed pointed out that the senators floated the idea first."

Jiminy God.

Sen. Barack Obama will unveil his latest Iraq proposal in a speech in Clinton, Iowa, today. His plan: Begin removing combat brigades from Iraq at the rate of "one or two" per month, with all combat brigades out of the country by the end of 2008. "We must get out strategically and carefully, removing troops from secure areas first and keeping troops in more volatile areas until later," Obama says in a draft of the speech obtained by the Associated Press.

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It's inconceivable that enough sympathetic Republicans in the Senate will go that far, but the number of GOP senators willing at least to talk the talk about changing course does seem to increase each time the subject of the war comes before the Senate. Aside from hardcore loyalists like John McCain, John Cornyn and James Inhofe -- and Joe Lieberman, of course -- we didn't hear much of anyone in the Senate giving unequivocal support to the Petraeus-Bush plan in Tuesday's marathon day of hearings.

John Warner isn't happy with the Petraeus plan. Neither is Chuck Hagel nor Richard Lugar. Indeed, even former war booster Elizabeth Dole said Tuesday that the problems in Iraq stem "in large part" from the Bush administration's "substantial failure to understand the full implications of our military invasion," and that she's now ready to support "what some have called 'action-forcing measures.'" That's probably not a binding timetable for withdrawal, but it might be legislation requiring or at least recommending a shift in the U.S. mission away from refereeing a civil war and toward training Iraqis, protecting the borders and fighting terrorists. That sort of bill could have enough bipartisan support to get over the 60-vote hump in the Senate, especially if it doesn't come too close to actually requiring the president to do anything, but only if Democrats like Chris Dodd don't walk away in disgust first.

It's a sad state of affairs when the best that a Democratic majority may be able to do is whatever the Elizabeth Doles of the world deign to do themselves. But unless the Democrats seriously seize the power the voters handed them in November, that's all we're going to get from them this time, and then we'll just do this all over again when Petraeus reports back to Congress next March.


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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