Since January, when divided government returned to Washington, the Democrat-controlled Congress and the Republican-run White House have spoken the language of "common ground." To date, not much has really changed in the nation's highly polarized politics. But now, each for their own reasons, the two parties appear headed on a path toward compromise over legislation to fund the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.
An outline for funding legislation that Congress can pass and the president can sign is emerging – one that drops the firm timeline for bringing US troops home and adds a requirement that the Iraqi government meet benchmarks of progress. But hammering out the details will not be easy, as strains inside both parties over the Iraq war will force negotiators to calibrate carefully what will and will not satisfy enough members on both sides, and then the White House.
"The obvious alternative is to strip the dates and do the benchmarks," says Norman Ornstein, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington. "The question is, can you do that and get the president to go along?"
The sticking point over benchmarks centers on consequences: What if benchmarks are not met? Some top Democrats prefer a punitive approach – that if the Iraqis do not make progress, for example, in instituting an oil revenue-sharing plan or in disarming militias, the United States will cut nonmilitary aid.
The Bush administration is more interested in carrots than sticks – preferring incentives for progress rather than punishment for lack of progress. In the past, White House suggestions of benchmarks have ruffled Iraqi government sensitivities.
But even among top Republicans, there is a growing sense that the US commitment in Iraq cannot be open-ended and that benchmarks are appropriate. Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has been widely quoted as saying that a number of Republicans believe properly crafted benchmarks can be helpful.
A recent Pew Research Center poll found that almost 60 percent of Americans wanted a timeline for US withdrawal in the Iraq funding bill, a point that has not gone unnoticed by Republicans.
"It's true that when you talk to Republicans, the turmoil is substantial," says Mr. Ornstein. "They're getting increasingly nervous about voting over and over to support a policy that voters don't like."
And for that reason, analysts say, time is on the Democrats' side. They can afford to make a concession now on the timeline provision, and come back to that another day. The real showdown may come in September, when Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander is Iraq, is due to report on the progress in the war. By then, the effectiveness of the buildup of US forces in Iraq and other efforts to support political progress within the country may be clear.
"The president has a certain short-term advantage, in that everyone understands that a bill has to pass that funds the troops," says Calvin Jillson, a political scientist at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. "But the Democrats have a more important longer-term advantage, in that every day that they challenge the president's policies and the continuation of the war, and the president says, 'We must continue the fight,' is a good day for the Democrats."
But there are potential downsides for the Democrats, too. Already, the party's presidential candidates are starting to snipe at one another over strategy to end the war. On Thursday, former vice presidential candidate John Edwards put up his first ad of the campaign with a plea to Congress to keep sending President Bush legislation that seeks to end the war. The campaign of Sen. Christopher Dodd, another Democratic hopeful, shot back in effect with a response of "easy for you to say." As a former senator, Mr. Edwards no longer has to take tough votes anymore, unlike several of the other Democratic candidates.
Senator Dodd's camp noted that he alone among the presidential candidates is backing Senate legislation that would set a firm date for US withdrawal from Iraq and to end funding. That bill is cosponsored by Senate majority leader Harry Reid of Nevada and Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin.
Even if Democrats appear to be on the side of majority US opinion, the party is struggling to present itself as an opponent of US policy, not an opponent of US troops.
"The Democrats are painfully aware that this is their Achilles' heel – that if their attempt to turn the president's policy toward eventual withdrawal comes to be perceived as a failure to support the troops, that will be punished by the public – maybe not today but 10 years from now," says Mr. Jillson. "Maybe the next time a crisis comes up, the Republicans can say, 'Look what those guys did in Vietnam and Iraq. You can't trust them with the nation's security.' "