The Politicians, the Posturing, and the Policy

Dealing with the war in both Congress and the campaign


The flurry of assessments regarding America's war effort will have broad ramifications not just for policy but for politics as well. Here's where the debate seems to be headed in the halls of Congress, and on the presidential campaign trail:

Capitol Hill. Behind the scenes, Democratic and Republican lawmakers in the Senate—who had been at loggerheads—are trying to hammer out compromise legislation to begin the process of withdrawing troops from Iraq. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, has been meeting with moderate Republicans who said this summer they might be ready by September to consider troop withdrawals or limiting troop deployments. "I hope these Republicans," says Reid, "will now follow their words with action." The Republicans don't want to say much until after Gen. David Petraeus gives his report.

The House is another matter. On the heels of various new assessments, House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat, says House Democrats will very likely insist that a withdrawal timeline be part of a separate wartime supplemental spending bill expected later this month.

Ultimately, firm withdrawal dates are far from a done deal. Earlier this year, Reid stood his ground on a spring troop withdrawal deadline. But in order to break the congressional impasse over Iraq, Reid is now encouraging a new bipartisan coalition around legislation that would call for some troop withdrawals or limits on deployments but with no dates attached. That could be a tough sell in his party, as many Democrats say they will not support legislation unless it mandates troop withdrawals by a specific date.

Any troop withdrawal proposal will face a tough slog. Democrats have a 51-to-49 majority in the Senate, but independent Sen. Joseph Lieberman, who usually votes with the Dems, sides with the GOP on Iraq. So at least 10 Republicans will need to support a Democratic bill in order for it to acquire the 60 names needed to cut off debate and call a vote.

One possible compromise—which has the support of more than a dozen Republican and Democratic senators—is a proposal by Sens. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat, and Lamar Alexander, a Tennessee Republican, to turn the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group into law. The group's proposals, released in December, include developing new roles for U.S. troops and a new regional diplomatic initiative. If no progress were forthcoming within a year, then troops would begin leaving Iraq.

On the Hustings. On Iowa farms and in New Hampshire coffee shops, there's no avoiding the topic of Iraq. But there do seem to be some subtle shifts in candidates' positions that relate to the current reassessments. In a televised debate last week, several Republican presidential candidates continued to rally behind the Bush administration's troop surge in Iraq. Sen. John McCain reiterated his longtime support of putting more troops on the ground in Iraq and spoke adamantly against setting a timetable for withdrawal, calling it a "date for surrender."

Former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee also support the surge. Mitt Romney, former governor of Massachusetts, however, was a bit more tepid. While he opposes a timetable for withdrawing troops, he left himself some wiggle room: "Ultimately, down the road, I would anticipate that we're not going to have a permanent presence in Iraq."

Democrats John Edwards and Bill Richardson leave no doubts about their positions: They want the troops out. "Our troops have become targets," says Richardson, the governor of New Mexico. Sens. Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama say they oppose rapid troop pullout from Iraq, even though they also opposed the administration's new surge. And in recent weeks, in the run-up to this week's testimony by Petraeus and Ambassador Ryan Crocker—expected to signal some progress—their rhetoric has become more nuanced. "If we put an additional 30,000 of our troops into Baghdad," said Obama in late August, "that's going to quell some of the violence in the short term." In Iraq, the longer-term outlook is anybody's guess. In the halls of Congress and on the presidential campaign trail, though, the fighting seems sure to continue.