Iraq Troop Withdrawal Remains a Hot Topic in Washington

The political debate over a timetable for a U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq heated up over the weekend when it was leaked that Pentagon withdrawal proposals seemed remarkably similar to Democratic proposals. Last week, Republicans attacked and voted down Democratic initiatives in the Senate on troop withdrawal.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION, from NPR News. Renee Montagne is away. I'm Steve Inskeep. Good morning.

The political debate over U.S. policy in Iraq intensified over the weekend. This began with report in The New York Times of a possible timetable for U.S. troop withdrawals from Iraq. NPR's Senior Correspondent Juan Williams joins us now for some analysis. Juan, good morning.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good morning, Steve.

INSKEEP: And this all starts with General George Casey. He's the U.S. commander in Iraq. And according to the Times, anyway, he agreed to a timetable that starts troop reduction this year, in September, and increases over the next couple of years, which sounds a lot like what Democrats were demanding in the U.S. Senate just last week.

WILLIAMS: That's right, Steve. And yesterday on the Sunday talk shows, Democrats said the only people now opposing plans for a phased withdrawal are right-wing members of the Congress. President Bush, as you said, met with Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld and General Casey at the White House on Friday. And there were discussions of scenarios for possible troop reductions that would cut the size of the U.S. force in half by the end of 2007. That would be down from the 127,000 that are on the ground right now.

INSKEEP: Would Republicans have something of a defense here, because they were denouncing just such a plan, because they were saying, well, we want to wait for it to come from the military commanders, and now it has come from the military commanders.

WILLIAMS: Well, you know, Senator Lugar said yesterday, we've got to wait for the situation on the ground to determine any kind of scenario for withdrawals. And he pointed out that there's continuing violence and said that really the discussion at the White House was not to set a specific timetable, but really discussion about what is possible. So they're saying this is not a done deal; it's simply a matter of looking at possibilities.

INSKEEP: Nevertheless, Democrats are unhappy. We have some tape of California Senator Barbara Boxer yesterday on CBS, she's accusing Republicans of being hypocritical here.

Senator BARBARA BOXER (Democrat, California): Here we have a situation where Democrats - 80 percent of us - voted to say we ought to start reducing our troop presence there, we got pummeled. And now it turns out we're in synch with Gen. Casey.

INSKEEP: Are they?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think, you know, in a way they are. I mean, for example, Senator Kerry, John Kerry who is, of course, the Democrat's nominee in 2004, issued a statement yesterday in which he said basically that it looks a lot like what Republicans spent the last week attacking. And he said will the, what he called, attack dogs on the partisan right now turn their venom on Gen. Casey? And so it does look that way. I mean, what they were discussing at the White House is a plan that would allow for a focus on political stabilization, you know, trying to tone down the violence over the next year, then investing more American effort, in terms of allowing for a strong government to take hold in Iraq. And, finally, then seeing whether or not you can get U.S. forces really out in any significant way by 2009. That sounds a lot like what Senator Levin and Senator Reid we purposing just last week.

INSKEEP: Juan Williams, let's talk a little bit about some other issues. The Senate, of course, is thinking about the election that is coming this fall and some Democrats are accusing the Republicans, who control both houses of Congress, of being a do-nothing Congress.

WILLIAMS: Well, it's really fascinating, Steve. The Congress is about enter a summer session of, you know, pure political positioning in advance of the midterm elections. You can understand that. Democrats, though, are pointing to failed Republican efforts to ban gay marriage and this week's upcoming vote on another issue of questionable urgency, a flag burning ban, as evidence that Republicans are less interested in taking action on tough issues that are compelling right now - the economy, immigration, energy policy - and saying Republicans are really focused on just stirring up the right-wing base in hopes of getting those voters to the polls in November. The biggest accomplishment that the GOP-led Congress can claim so far is extending the president's tax cuts. Issues like renewing the Voting Rights Act, tax breaks for medical expenses, and passing new immigration laws are being left for another day.

INSKEEP: You mentioned immigration. That is an issue where Republicans have made it clear they have some serious differences and they're not necessarily ready to agree on an immigration bill.

WILLIAMS: Well, that's right. It's very hard to imagine how a political compromise can be accomplished on a volatile political issue like immigration in the short time that Congress will be in session after the summer recess ends September 4th and the start - you know, the bell will ring in October for full campaign mode for the entire House.

By the way, there'll be rival hearings among Republicans, while the hearings held in the southwest are likely to amplify angry hardliners opposed to anything but building a wall, Senator Arlen Specter, of Pennsylvania, will be holding hearings in Philadelphia to gin up support for Senate proposals that allow people here illegally to find a path to legal status. Both sides are trying to rally support for their side in advance of bargaining over an immigration bill between the Senate and the House.

INSKEEP: Juan, thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Steve.

INSKEEP: That's NPR Senior Correspondent Juan Williams giving us some analysis on this Monday morning.

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