A bipartisan end to the war? Fat chance

Unable to gain Republican support for more "modest" measures, Harry Reid says he'll push for a withdrawal deadline again.

Published September 19, 2007 11:53AM (EDT)

Remember how Democratic leaders in the Senate were abandoning hopes of setting a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq in favor of "incremental changes" and "modest bipartisan measures"?

Never mind.

As the Washington Post reports this morning, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid will now once again push for a bill that would require the withdrawal of almost all U.S. combat troops from Iraq by June 2008.

It's not that Senate Democrats have finally found a backbone, mind you. It's that too many Republicans -- and here's a surprise -- seem unwilling to go along with even the more "modest" measures that Reid and the Democrats hoped could win bipartisan approval. There's little appetite in the GOP for a bill that would set a date-specific though nonbinding "goal" for removing troops from Iraq, and Republican Virginia Sen. John Warner now seems to be wavering on Democratic Virginia Sen. Jim Webb's plan to require that U.S. troops have more time at home between deployments overseas. Warner voted for the measure in July, but now an aide says he's rethinking his position.

So Reid says that he will push again for legislation with "definite timetables" for withdrawal. It won't pass, but it will put everyone on record again and let the Democrats argue, as Reid did Monday, that Iraq is "the Senate Republicans' war, not just Bush's war."

In the meantime, senators in the middle are still whipping up a hodgepodge of would-be bipartisan measures that would nibble at the edges of the war. As Congressional Quarterly reports, Republican Sen. Susan Collins and Democratic Sen. Ben Nelson are working up a measure that would limit the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq; Democratic Sen. Ken Salazar and Republican Sen. Lamar Alexander are eyeing a similar change in mission, coupled with the beginning of a withdrawal by early next year; and Republican Sen. George Voinovich is writing a "binding" joint resolution that would require the president to begin withdrawing some unspecified number of troops from Iraq within 120 days and set a goal of having a "limited" U.S. presence in Iraq at some date of Bush's choosing.

The problem with all these measures, of course, is that the president can pretty much claim that he's already doing whatever they might require. Withdrawal? I'm on it. Change of mission? It's coming. A "limited" presence down the road? It's in the works. But that's a "problem" only in the sense that it means that the measures won't actually do anything to force the president's hand or end the president's war. For Republicans looking for a way to look like they're standing up to Bush without really doing so, that's not a problem at all. It's an opportunity, an out, and if the Senate accomplishes anything at all on Iraq this time around, it will be because enough Republican senators think that they need one.

By Tim Grieve

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

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