Democrats Ready Proposals for Iraq Withdrawal

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Democrats in the House and Senate are outlining plans to withdraw troops from Iraq in 2008. A presidential adviser called any timetable for withdrawal "a non-starter."

ALEX CHADWICK, host:

Congressional Democrats are moving to confront the president on the war. We expect the political battles to begin next week in earnest. There are House and Senate Democrat version - Democratic versions of legislation to end the U.S. military role in Iraq next year. A presidential adviser called any timetable for withdrawal, quote, "a non-starter," saying it would, quote, "handcuff the generals on the ground."

Joining us as he does most every Friday, NPR's senior correspondent Juan Williams. Juan, hello again.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good to be with you, Alex.

CHADWICK: So the Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate have two different proposals. How different are they?

WILLIAMS: Well, the key point here is when the withdrawal would be finalized. In the House, what you have is the situation where the proposal would have a beginning to withdraw in March of '08 but end all the combat roles by August of '08. In the Senate, really, all the phased withdrawals begin much sooner and end in March. So they both agree with March as the sort of cut-off point, that March is the date that was set by the Iraq Study Group.

But while March is the final point in the Senate deal, it's only a beginning point in the House deal with, as I said, August is the final point for the end of all combat operations.

CHADWICK: So, Juan, what do you think has changed in time, because the idea of a deadline for bringing home the troops was seen by a - is seen as politically risky - even a few months ago, it was branded as cut and run then.

WILLIAMS: Well, the big changes, obviously, in public opinion. At the moment, according to a Washington Post poll, Alex, you have 53 percent of majority now supporting setting a deadline for withdrawing the troops and even putting conditions on the military being there. The U.S.A. Today poll has 60 percent supporting timetables. So that's a big difference.

And among the people who are supporting this timetable, you have 24 percent who want U.S. troops out in six months, 45 percent out in a year. So that gives you a sense of how strong the public is on this. And I think the Democrats feel much more comfortable now in saying they agree on a deadline - much more along the lines of what Congressman John Murtha of Pennsylvania had been saying all along and people said it was meddlesome; it's trouble. Don't do it. It's going to cost the Democrats coming up 08.

Now, the Democrats have a sense they're with the public and the public opinion is, in fact, growing in that direction. You have, you know, 46 percent now, saying they want to restrict funding for the war. Fifty-one percent still say no to that, but 46 percent - that's almost (unintelligible) saying restrict funding for the war even if the president is seeking $100 billion right now for added combat operations in Iraq and Afghanistan.

CHADWICK: And you're saying these poll numbers are so - such a strong signal to the Democrats, that they seem to have set aside their concerns about being labeled, again, as weak on national security - fairly or unfairly?

WILLIAMS: No. I think that - yes, well. The reason I said no and yes, I know.

CHADWICK: Yeah, It's hard.

WILLIAMS: It's hard, but yes, they feel they're at the point where they have public opinion on their side. And, as I said, it's growing. But no, in the sense that you have elements within the party - conservative - who fear that they will still be attacked, going into the elections, especially with Congressional elections as having been too soft and been meddlesome.

But you have to understand is, so much of this now is sort of compounding, if you will. You have the president's handling as 67 percent of Americans now disapprove of the idea that we went into the war at all, say that the war was not worth fighting.

And this comes at - in the same week that you have General David Petraeus, who is now the lead commander in Iraq, saying that they're going to need more troops, in fact, instead of just a surge of 21,500. We have word this week, there's going to be an additional 7,000 that would be needed to go in.

So what we see is that even as the administration and the war is moving in one direction, American public opinion is moving clearly in the other, and Democrats feel more secure in that regard.

CHADWICK: Mr. Bush says he's going to veto this even though it would be attached to this supplemental spending bill, $100 billion, that he needs for Iraq.

WILLIAMS: Yes. And, you know, that's the big - that's the one light here at the end of the tunnel. Could you get a compromise not only between Democrats in the House and Senate, but with Republicans if Republicans decide they could use that extra $1.7 billion beyond what the president has requested that would go for equipment for the military, military housing improvements, help with base closure, and even with the cost of Gulf Coast reconstruction. That's really attractive money. Will Republicans bite and move away from the president and their unified support for him so far?

CHADWICK: NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. Thank you, Juan.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Alex.

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