Democrats Split on Troops Levels in Iraq
ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
On Capitol Hill, senators are debating two competing democratic proposals for pulling American forces out of Iraq. Last week, there were passionate speeches on the same subject in the House. Lawmakers are facing midterm elections in less than five months and they're facing opinion polls that show the public has turned against the war.
NPR's David Welna reports.
DAVID WELNA reporting:
As the House debated Iraq last week, Republicans focused on positive developments there, the demise of the leader of al-Qaida in Iraq and a surprise visit by President Bush to Baghdad. But in the Senate today, Democrats pointed out the bad news about the bodies found of the two missing soldiers. Minority Leader Harry Reid demanded that an amendment decrying reports that the Iraqi government planned a limited amnesty for those who've killed U.S. forces be brought to a vote.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): Try telling them, try telling their parents, their families, that it's okay to give amnesty to the so-called resistance provided they have not been involved in killing Iraqis. Only Americans. I think the families of Tucker and Menchaca would be very, very displeased.
WELNA: The amendment condemning such an amnesty did come to a vote this afternoon and it passed 79-19. But the bigger debate that's still in its early stages is over two amendments Democrats have offered. One of them, backed by John Kerry of Massachusetts and Russ Feingold of Wisconsin, proposes redeploying U.S. forces from Iraq by July of next year. Dick Durbin, the Senate's number two Democrat, signaled early today his support for that proposal.
Senator DICK DURBIN (Democrat, Illinois): The Senate will have a chance. A chance to say to the Iraqi people that as of the middle of next year, this becomes your responsibility. We will give you 12 months and more American lives and more American dollars and then, Iraq, you have to stand up and defend yourself.
WELNA: But most other Democrats appear to be lining up behind a separate amendment sponsored by Michigan's Carl Levin and Rhode Island's Jack Reed. It simply calls for redeployment to begin this year and for President Bush to submit a plan for further redeployment. Levin acknowledged Democrats may have to vote against each other on the two amendments.
Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): I think it's important that each of us search down into our own conscience and decide what is the best policy for the United States and that this should not be a partisan issue. It should not be a political issue. We are in the middle of a war.
WELNA: Still, many Senate Republicans are spoiling for a fight over the amendments. Here's their leader, Bill Frist.
Senator BILL FRIST (Republican, Tennessee): The Iraqi people want us and they need us to help them. If we don't, if we break our promise and cut and run, as some would have us do, the implications could be catastrophic. Not only would it be a dishonor to our Americans, a dishonor of historic proportions, the threat to America's national security would be potentially disastrous.
WELNA: And Georgia Republican Johnny Isakson said both Democrat proposals for redeployment smacked of the Senate's calls in the early 1970s for troop withdrawals from Vietnam.
Senator JOHNNY ISAKSON (Republican, Georgia): Why should we repeat the horrible mistake of the way in which we managed our conflict in the '70s? It is time we recognized that we're winning a great victory for mankind, not just the Iraqi people.
WELNA: It's not clear whether Senate Republicans will offer an amendment of their own on the Iraq war as House Republicans did last week. Many prefer simply savoring the display of Democratic divisions on Iraq. Wisconsin Democrat Feingold acknowledged that the amendment he backs, with a date certain for redeployment, has caused a split in his party's caucus.
Senator RUSS FEINGOLD (Democrat, Wisconsin): I would prefer that we were unified. The worst case scenario is to be silent. We have been silent and weak on this issue. I think the second-best choice is that openly air our concern about it. That we show that we have some differences but that we are engaged in trying to finish this because the administration's policy is open-ended.
WELNA: As the first member of the Senate to have called for withdrawing U.S. forces, Feingold says he's feeling a lot less lonely with that stance today.
David Welna, NPR News, The Capitol.