ALEX CHADWICK, host:
From the studios of NPR West, this is DAY TO DAY. I'm Alex Chadwick.
MADELEINE BRAND, host:
I'm Madeleine Brand.
Just how many U.S. troops are serving in Iraq? I'll get a headcount coming up with NPR's Guy Raz at the Pentagon.
CHADWICK: First, congressional Democrats today agreed to set a date for the U.S. to leave Iraq. They would be gone. The troops would be gone by the fall of 2008, just before the next presidential election. Here is House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
Representative NANCY PELOSI (Democrat, California; Speaker of the House): We're talking about supporting the troops with the funding they need, honoring our promises to our veterans, holding the Defense Department to the standard that they have about readiness before we send our troops in. Holding the Iraqi government accountable to the benchmarks established by President Bush.
CHADWICK: And joining us now to talk about the Democrats' decision on Iraq, Congressman Joe Sestak. He's a Democrat from Pennsylvania and a retired vice-admiral in the Navy. Congressman, the Democrats have been arguing about this for days. Are you really in agreement now?
Representative JOE SESTAK (Democrat, Pennsylvania): I still believe that there is some disagreement among some of the members, but this is all good. Everyone was talking about appropriate exit strategy. But I think you'll see that eventually the caucus will come together in what is finally going to be presented in writing, probably by later this afternoon or tomorrow.
CHADWICK: A very direct challenge to the Bush administration, which has been saying all along do not set a date for withdrawal; it's a mistake.
Rep. SESTAK: I have always, even in my campaign, said the only correct strategy is a date certain. It changes all the incentives. First, it tells the Iraqis that they have to step up and assume the personal consequences of not taking on the challenge of the political decisions to stop what is a political issue, the sectarian violence.
Second, it changes the incentives for the Syrians and the Iranians that are involved destructively in this civil war that we are refereeing. And with a diplomatic surge of dealing directly with these nations to bring them together for stability in Iraq, a date certain is exactly what's needed.
CHADWICK: Mr. Sestak, you're new in Congress, following a military career. You're, I think, the highest-ranking military officer ever elected to Congress. I wonder how you do in these meetings to try to determine what the Democratic Party is going to do. Did you speak in the meeting that was going on yesterday, this argument between the anti-war wing and people who describe themselves as more moderate Democrats?
Rep. SESTAK: Yes, I did speak. My vote represents 700,000 individual votes. So I have an obligation that if I agree or disagree that I voice that, or if I have a way to better - I believe - to better present something, because I A) listen to the people in my district, or B) because of my experience in the military on this issue.
CHADWICK: You served in Afghanistan.
Rep. SESTAK: I did. I had a carrier battle group in the war in Afghanistan and then we went into the Persian Gulf and did the precursor combat operations for this Iraq war.
CHADWICK: I think that the Democrats worry very deeply in this debate that's going on that they will be branded as the party that wouldn't stay and fight. They're worried about their reputation, fairly or unfairly, left over from the war in Vietnam.
Rep. SESTAK: I wish they wouldn't worry about that. It's about being pro-security. This war is hurting United States security around this world. Take Afghanistan. I not only had to carry a battle group there; I was actually on the ground about two months after the war began, over Christmastime, and I saw what needed to be done.
I came back with my carrier battle group, was on the ground again 18 months later and saw what hadn't been accomplished because they diverted our - not only attention but our resources, like civil affairs units, Special Forces, to this misadventure in Iraq. And now that country is prey to terrorists again, and Taliban are moving into the southern provinces.
And so my belief that a date certain is so important is not about just ending this tragedy in Iraq. We have to remain in the region and be strong. But we also have to have our Army ready here at home to respond to contingencies - and it's nearly broken - and to be engaged properly where we need to pursue the global war of terror. And let the chips fall as they may. Every day we are in Iraq, we are hurting United States security abroad and here at home.
CHADWICK: Congressman Joe Sestak, a Pennsylvania Democrat. Congressman, thank you for speaking with us on DAY TO DAY.
Rep. SESTAK: Alex, thank you for having me aboard.
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