A verbal break from the administration's Iraq policy wasn't enough.
Eager to make good on Iraq-themed campaign promises that won them control of Congress, Senate Democrats are using amendments tied to the passage of the annual defense bill to test the rhetoric of Republican dissidence with a simple yay or nay.
The debate surrounding passage of the $650 billion defense authorization act allows Democrats. who are eager to establish a timeline for Iraq withdrawal, the opportunity to attach amendments to the bill that force Republicans to define how far they'll go in their opposition of the president.
Ending the Surge With Equal Time
One such amendment, a bipartisan proposal that guaranteed troops equal time posted in the United States as they spent deployed in war zones, was speculated to have the best chance of passage. It was defeated Wednesday in a 56-41 vote.
Amendment co-sponsors Sens. Jim Webb, D-Va., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., argued their amendment would effectively end the surge because the military would run out of deployable troops and the administration would be forced to transition the U.S. military role in Iraq.
With the equal-time amendment defeated, Hagel and Webb will introduce a second readiness amendment to limits lengths of deployments while establishing minimum time requirements between deployments and requiring the president to report to Congress on the comprehensive strategy involving Iraq.
For Democrats attempting to nail Republican dissonance to the walls of Congress, four key amendments remain.
Later this week, Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., will introduce an amendment calling for withdrawal of most U.S. troops by April 30, 2008.
The Levin-Reed amendment maintains an unspecified number of U.S. forces in Iraq for "limited missions" after the April 30 withdrawal date for force protection, the training of Iraqi security forces and specific counterterrorism operations.
Questioned Wednesday during a news conference on the number of troops that would remain, Levin shot back that the goal of the amendment wasn't to get "mired down into a specific debate as to how many troops would remain."
"We want the focus in this legislation to be on changing the course and forcing the Iraqi leaders to step up to the plate and accepting responsibility for their own country, working out the political agreements that have to be worked out if there's going to be any possibility of success in Iraq," he said.
Another proposal, Sen. Russ Feingold's more aggressive timetable for withdrawal, calls for March 31, 2008 as a firm deadline to end U.S. involvement in Iraq. The Feingold amendment, which earned the backing of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, would also cut off most war funding by the March 31 deadline.
Neither of the amendments, which set hard deadlines for U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, are expected to pass in the Senate, though the Levin-Reed measure has picked up GOP senatorial support by way of Oregon's Gordon Smith, Nebraska's Chuck Hagel and Washington's Olympia Snowe.
Repealing War Authorization
Along with longtime war critic Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., presidential hopeful Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., is co-sponsoring an amendment that would sunset the war authorization enacted by Congress in October 2002 on its five-year anniversary, Oct. 11, 2007.
The Clinton-Byrd proposal, which is not expected to pass in the Senate, forces the administration to seek new authorization for the war, declaring a "new mission" in Iraq that Congress would have to approve.
Implementing Findings of the Iraq Study Group
Another bill enjoying bipartisan support, co-sponsored by Colorado Democrat Ken Salazar and Tennessee Republican Lamar Alexander, says the United States should enact the policy recommendations of the Iraq Study Group as part of its future Iraq policy.
The Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan commission appointed by President Bush and led by Republican James Baker and Democrat Lee Hamilton, recommended the United States should turn the combat mission over to the Iraqis and work toward a withdrawal of U.S. forces from the region during spring 2008, while allowing to maintain long-term presence there.
Salazar's bill would make the 79 recommendations of the Baker-Hamilton Commission a U.S. policy.
Awaiting the Surge Status Report
Ahead of the 23-page surge status report expected from the White House later this week, National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley met Wednesday with GOP lawmakers for the second straight day.
Hadley's visit to Congress came on the heels of several Republican defections on Iraq last week, like key GOP Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M., a backer of Salazar's amendment to enact the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.
Said Domenici last week, "I do not support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops, but I do support a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home."
Republicans at Wednesday' meeting offered Hadley lukewarm support for the administration's policy and expressed concern over the lack of progress in Iraq. Dissenting GOP voices told Hadley privately they didn't want the president to wait until September — when Congress reconvenes — to change course in Iraq.
In Cleveland this week, the president put his faith in his general who isn't due stateside till September.
"I call upon the U.S. Congress to give Gen. David Petraeus a chance to come back and tell us whether his strategy is working. And then we can work together on a way forward," Bush said.
Members said Wednesday that Hadley did not indicate whether or not the president was considering switching gears.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.