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Democrats Face ‘Balancing Act’ on Iraq

With long-awaited reports on the political and military situation in Iraq looming on the Congressional horizon, Senate Democrats find themselves feeling uncertain in their approach to the Iraq War, even as the chamber’s Republicans appear much more comfortable supporting the continuation of President Bush’s “surge” strategy.

“We want to change the policy” in Iraq, Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) said. “The question is, how far can we go?”

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) recently telegraphed his willingness to modify the Democrats’ long-held position that Congress should set a date certain for the beginning of a withdrawal from the conflict. But the question remains how many Republicans will take him up on his offer, and how many Democrats might abandon Reid if he moves too far to the right.

“It’s a delicate balancing act,” acknowledged one Senate Democratic leadership aide. “The goal continues to be finding enough votes to force a change in administration policy and begin bringing the troops home.”

But the aide cautioned that Democrats are in a holding pattern on Iraq until they formally hear the reports from U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker that are scheduled for next week.

Much of the Democrats’ hopes for forcing a change in the Bush administration’s Iraq policy appear to hinge on respected defense hawk Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who has attempted to walk a fine line between calling for changes in Iraq and rebuffing Democrats’ calls to force a date certain for those changes.

Warner, who recently announced his retirement, repeatedly has given Democrats hope that he may be slowly shifting to a more hard-line stance with the administration by making statements that appear to indicate his frustration with the White House’s handling of the war. But he also continues to publicly deflect questions about what he will support.

“At this point in time, I’m going to wait for the president to inform the nation and the Congress as to any such changes he intends to make. At that time, I and others will give our thoughts,” Warner said Tuesday.

But one senior Senate Democratic aide noted that, should Warner decide to join forces with Democrats on a potential compromise, he likely would bring other fence-sitting Republicans with him.

Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) indicated Tuesday that Democrats continue to be uncertain about the level of success they may have in attracting Republicans willing to break with the president. “There have been an awful lot of Republicans who have said on their own that they want to change the course in Iraq, but every time we try to put pen to paper they say, ‘That’s not exactly what we meant,’” he said.

Still, Durbin said Democrats are committed to making another attempt at compromise. “There are meetings going on now — individual meetings with individual Republican Senators — trying to find out how far they will go,” he said.

Additionally, Reid has had “several conversations with Republicans in recent days,” the Senate Democratic leadership aide said.

Stabenow said Senate Democrats are waiting to see whether Republicans will truly make good on their repeated assertions earlier this year that their patience with the current Iraq strategy was not unlimited.

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