After winning back control of the House and Senate largely on the basis of opposition to the war in Iraq, Democrats are ramping up to find a bipartisan way out of it.
So far, the leading exit strategies on Capitol Hill – more troops, fewer troops, partition of Iraq, and timetables for phased or immediate withdrawal – are tied to individual sponsors. Disagreements cross party lines.
But leading Democrats now say that any exit strategy must be bipartisan. While eager to respect commitments to voters, Democrats don't want to own a war that many believe is already beyond winning – or to be tagged with the consequences of a botched exit.
That's why the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, to be released on Dec. 6, have taken such a high profile on Capitol Hill. If leaks of an agreement this week are accurate, the 10-member, bipartisan panel will call for a gradual pullback of US combat brigades, with no timetable for withdrawal, and direct engagement with Iran and Syria on a regional solution.
"People have their fingers crossed that [the Iraq Study Group] will have something to it that everyone can buy into and that also provides a way out," says Winslow Wheeler at the Center for Defense Information in Washington.
Many Democrats agree that consensus is vital. "There has to be a solid bipartisan consensus, just as there was in the cold war," said Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island, who has been the lead spokesman on the Iraq war for the Senate Democratic caucus, in a briefing this week.
But to get to that point, lawmakers will have to grapple with facts on the ground in the war on terror in a way that they have not yet done and move beyond campaign slogans, say defense analysts.
"Congress isn't framing options. Individual members are framing options. There isn't building consensus even within the Democratic Party yet," says Anthony Cordesman, a military analyst at the Middle East with the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, who recently returned from the Middle East.
"Congress has not been kept properly informed," he adds. "As a result, it believes that there is more of an ability to rush things on the part of the Iraqi government than is possible, and that setting deadlines is going to produce progress rather than civil war. The legacy of too many promises and too much spin has created congressional expectations that are unrealistic."
Before the midterm elections, Demo-crats in the House and Senate agreed to three points on Iraq strategy: ensuring a "significant transition" to full Iraqi sovereignty in 2006, including the "responsible redeployment" of US forces; regional diplomacy and more pressure on the Iraqis to "make the political compromises necessary" to defeat the insurgency; and holding the Bush administration accountable on issues ranging from "manipulated prewar intelligence" to poor planning and contracting abuses.
Last June, all but six Senate Democrats backed a nonbinding amendment by Sens. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan and Reed, calling for a phased withdrawal within six months. The amendment failed by a vote of 39 to 60.
In the first congressional hearings on Iraq since the elections, Senator Levin, the incoming chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, renewed his call for a "phased redeployment of our forces within four to six months."
"America has given the Iraqi people the opportunity to build a new nation at the cost of nearly 3,000 American lives and over 20,000 wounded. And the American people do not want our valiant troops to get caught in a crossfire between Iraqis if Iraqis insist on squandering that opportunity through civil war and sectarian strife," he said at the Nov. 15 hearings.
On Tuesday, his cosponsor, Reed, said he was "less comfortable with the timetables and deadlines," and that redeployment could also mean "redeployment of forces in Iraq."
All nine freshmen Democratic senators in the new Congress campaigned to redeploy US troops as rapidly as possible.
In fact, critics say, it will be tough for Democrats to fulfill voter expectations for any quick change in the situation on the ground in Iraq.
"Congress wants to maintain the fiction that somehow we have control of the affairs on the ground and that we are decisive actors. We are not. We haven't had much control or influence in that country in the last two years," says retired Army Col. Douglas Macgregor, author of three recent books on the US military.
"Nothing is going to be sorted out until we get out. This is what the Democrats are failing on: They need to say this occupation is a serious mistake, and we need to get south of the Euphrates river as soon as possible," he adds.
On Nov. 14, Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin introduced legislation requiring US forces to redeploy from Iraq by July 1, 2007.
Meanwhile, many Republicans are shifting into defensive mode as they give up control of oversight committees. GOP Rep. Zach Wamp of Tennessee and Sen. Johnny Isakson (R) of Georgia said this week that they are backing Sen. John McCain's plan to boost troop levels by as much as 20,000 in Iraq.