Senate Dems split over Iraq withdrawal

Senate Democrats coalesced Monday around a proposal urging the Bush administration to start pulling U.S. troops out of Iraq by year’s end, brushing aside calls by some in the party for a firm withdrawal timetable.

“Three-and-a-half years into the conflict, we should tell the Iraqis that the American security blanket is not permanent,” said Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., who helped write the nonbinding resolution that quickly drew criticism from Republican leaders.

“Let me be clear: Retreat is not a solution,” Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., said, chastising Democrats for espousing a “cut-and-run” strategy that “threatens our national security and poses unacceptable risks to Americans.”

The Senate is to take up the resolution Tuesday and vote on it before Friday as debate on Iraq spills over into a second week on Capitol Hill, less than five months before midterm elections that will decide whether Democrats or Republicans control Congress.

Last week, the GOP-controlled Senate and House soundly rejected timetables for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, back-to-back votes that forced lawmakers in both parties to go on record on a major issue in re-election campaigns nationwide.

As the U.S. death toll and war spending continue to climb, polls show the public increasingly uncomfortable with the direction of the conflict, which began in spring 2003 when the United States invaded Iraq to topple dictator Saddam Hussein.

Democrats in Congress have long been divided over the way ahead in Iraq.

House Democratic leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., failed to get her caucus to rally around one position last week. Senate Democrats also spent the week trying to come up with a “consensus” position, and it appeared they had largely succeeded.

Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada backs the resolution and his aides say they expect 38 to 40 Democrats and a few Republicans to vote for the symbolic statement. However, they don’t expect to get the 51 votes needed to attach the resolution to an annual military bill.

The resolution would urge _ but not require _ the administration to begin “a phased redeployment of U.S. forces” in 2006 and, by year’s end, give Congress its plan for “continued redeployment” thereafter.

Additionally, the resolution calls for American troops, which have been focused on combat operations in Iraq, to more quickly switch to “a limited mission of training and logistic support of Iraqi security forces, protection of U.S. personnel and facilities, and targeting counterterrorism activities.”

It also maps out steps Senate Democrats say the fledgling Iraqi government must take to lay the foundation for a successful democracy and calls for an international conference to help Iraq overcome problems it faces.

Even as the GOP leadership criticized the resolution, Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the chairman of the Armed Services Committee, called it “a very serious-minded approach.” He declined to endorse it but nonetheless promised to give it careful consideration.

Three Democrats distanced themselves from the resolution.

Seeking a stronger position on Iraq, John Kerry of Massachusetts, Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Barbara Boxer of California intend to push for a vote on their own proposal.

It would require the administration to withdraw all combat troops from Iraq by July 1, 2007, leaving in place only U.S. troops essential to training Iraqi security forces, conducting counterterrorism operations and protecting U.S. personnel and facilities.

“A deadline gives Iraqis the best chance for stability and self-government, and most importantly, it allows us to begin refocusing on the true threats that face our country,” Kerry and Feingold, two Democrats eying potential presidential candidacies in 2008, said in a joint statement.

Their proposal is expected to be rejected overwhelmingly.

Aside from Iraq, other fights are brewing as the Senate works on the annual military bill.

Rankling Republicans, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass., on Monday proposed attaching long-sought legislation to raise the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour in three steps.

Frist objected and then countered by seeking to attach to the bill legislation that would make it illegal in most cases to transport minors seeking abortions across state lines to circumvent laws in some states requiring parental notification.

Votes on those proposals could occur this week.

© 2006 The Associated Press