An effort by Senate Democratic leaders to develop a bipartisan compromise on Iraq war legislation may ultimately be defeated at the hands of the fiercest war critics in their own party.
The leadership, under intense pressure to produce some action on Iraq, has been working with a small group of Republicans to produce what most likely will be non-binding legislation calling for the start of a troop pullout by the end of this year but no end date for a complete withdrawal.
A mounting chorus of Democratic defectors, many of them responding to growing demands for withdrawal, may oppose the compromise legislation. Sen. Chris Dodd, D-CT, announced last week he won't support such a measure. Sources on Capitol Hill told the Huffington Post that Asst. Senate Majority Leader Dick Durbin of Illinois, Russ Feingold, D-WI, Patrick Leahy, D-VT, and Bernie Sanders, I-VT are also potential no-votes. And with the presidential campaign in full swing - and judging by their comments in Monday night's Univision debate - Sens. Barack Obama, D-IL, and Hillary Clinton, D-NY, are more than likely to buck such a bill.
"It wouldn't be a shocker, if there were as many Democratic defections as Republican gains," one Hill staffer with reservations about the legislation told the Huffington Post.
The loss of Democratic support, political observers predict, could mean that approximately a dozen Republicans will be needed for the bipartisan measure to pass; an unlikely outcome.
"The [Democratic] purists are going to vote against it," said Steve Clemons, a fellow at the New America Foundation. "A good chunk would vote for it.... Several Republicans will come on board, but the broad outline is designed not to win."
What exactly the legislative compromise will look like is still a matter of intense debate within political circles. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-NV, seems poised to push an amendment - to be introduced sometime in the next two weeks by Sens. Carl Levin, D-MI and Jack Reed, D-RI - that will call for "a significant number" of troops to be withdrawn before the end of the calendar year, with a goal of completing the withdrawal sometime in 2008. The number withdrawn in 2007 could be as small as one brigade or as large as 40,000 to 50,000 troops, sources told the Huffington Post.
"A lot of different ways are being discussed to pick up enough votes as possible," said a staffer with knowledge of the proceedings. "A handful of options are still on the table, including a date-certain withdrawal."
The linchpin to the legislation's success may indeed be the number of troops set aside for redeployment. Several political observers predict that Republican war critics would only support a bill that reduced America's presence in Iraq by roughly 4,000 troops, a number General Petraeus has said he would be willing to stomach. Such a move - which will likely not win the support of anti-war Democrats - could be designed to give both parties short-term political cover.
"The plan could be to take a brigade out now and let the surge then un-surge," said Colin Kohl, a fellow at the Center for New American Security, in reference to the natural drawdown of troops that will occur in April when tours of duty expire. "The cautious route is to use the veneer of bipartisanship to push the administration to draw down a small number of troops, claim you want to draw down more, but be risk averse. Then, wait till the troops are drawn down in the spring."
On the periphery of this debate are several other potential legislative battles. Sen. Jim Webb, D-VA, is slated to reintroduce his amendment calling for active troops to have equal time at home as they spend in their previous tour of duty. The measure fell four votes short of the 60-vote filibuster-proof minimum when put forward this past summer. In addition, Sen. Ken Salazar, D-CO, is likely to reintroduce his amendment calling for the implementation of the Iraq Study Group proposals.
Some Democratic war opponents told the Huffington Post that compromise legislation is preferable to political stalemates and that the party should throw its weight behind the Levin-Reed amendment. But many Democrats contend that the party would be better served by simply resending date-certain withdrawal bills to the floor in the face of Republican opposition.
"It's very concerning that the floated basis of that compromise looks like not even a token withdrawal and compromising on the end date," said Michael Signer, a foreign policy adviser to presidential candidate John Edwards, who opposes the reported legislation. "We've seen with this President that when you give him an inch he'll take a mile. And if they compromise with the President he will likely have the leeway to carry this out till the end of his term."