Harry Reid, Iraq, and the Art of the Possible

There has been a lot of criticism of Harry Reid (D-NV) since the Washington Post reported about an interview they had with him regarding the upcoming debates over Iraq in Congress — however it seems to me that Reid is just taking an honest view of the legislative reality regarding possible success in Congress. The question for progressives is to ask whether it is more important to stay principled and accept little less than timelines for withdrawal, or should we allow Reid and Pelosi to explore the Art of the Possible.

Reid’s main points in the interview accept the current political environment:

1. The demand for a firm withdrawal deadline was an obstacle to gaining GOP votes for limitations on the war.
2. While he still supports withdrawal as soon as possible, and he has no regrets about his uncompromising strategy in july, in his view, now is the time to work with the Republicans to find possible solutions.
3. To this end, Reid is encouraging”new coalitions to develop” that result in more bipartisan cooperation.

This seems to be a sensible calculation. Even with the expected return of Tim Johnson (D-SD), and adding the four Republicans who supported withdrawal in July, we are talking about 54 votes, which in the Senate just doesn’t get you t the win. At 54 votes the Democrats are 6 short of ending a filibuster and 13 short of overcoming a veto (a barrier which is even harder to overcome in the House).

The Democrats have a choice: They can either insist on the full withdrawal plus timeline/deadline option in an “all or nothing” strategy and thus keep making what, in the end, will be merely symbolic votes; or, they can try to fashion a compromise with moderate and discouraged Republicans that will at least accomplish something.

The goal now should be to achieve the most possible in terms of ending U.S. involvement in Iraq and at least begin to unwind our presence there, and do it with the greatest number of votes possible to put more pressure on the Bush Administration. That will probably mean not focusing on votes for immediate withdrawal or hard timelines. But the reality is that real withdrawal probably will not begin until a Democrat enters the Oval office in January, 2009 — so until then, Reid and Pelosi have to focus on the Art of the Possible.

The basic elements of the possible are already in Harry Reid’s mind. He is going to bring back Jim Webb’s (D-VA) bill that mandates that soldier’s that return home after tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan must have stays at home equal to the length of their deployment. He is working with Ken Salazar (D-CO) to bring up his bill, co-sponsored with Lamar Alexander (R-TN), that would implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, but Reid is trying to get them to add some sort of timeline for at least the beginning of withdrawal. Armed Forces Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) is going to get the Senate to vote on his and Jack Reed’s proposal to begin withdrawal within 120 days. In a compromise they are considering removing the April 30th deadline for the withdrawal’s completion.

The idea is to gain the votes of Republicans who want to show that they don’t support Bush’s policies, but are recalcitrant to opposing him completely. If it is possible to pick up Republicans such as John Warner (R-VA) and Richard Lugar (R-IN), Republicans who have expressed concerns about the President’s policies, but who won’t, for whatever reasons. won’t support a full pullout at this time.

However, accepting the Art of the Possible does not mean the Democrats just give in to the Republicans and the White House. The $50 billion that the President is expected to request from Congress for Iraq and Afghanistan is where the Democrats need to draw their line in the sand. The Democrats need to question the rationale for this request, looking into not just the explanation of the need for the funds, but how previous spending for these operations has been used, wasted and abused. There has been enough waste, corruption and unaccounted spending in Iraq, along with what appears to be outright fraud by some contractors (Yes we mean Halliburton) that it could be argued that if previous funds had been spent wisely and as promised, this $50 billion would not be needed right now. Maybe the contractors who have benefitted from the war should fund the next phase of it.

In any case, the $50 billion supplemental spending request by the Bush Administration should be used as the key for the Democrats to get as far as they can in terms of limiting the war and bringing at least some troops back to the U.S. To do this, they may need to compromise with some moderate Republicans in order to gain at least some leverage — but this is just understanding that getting some of what you want is sometimes better than getting nothing and standing on principle alone.

I do have a concept as to how to link Iraq appropriations with limiting U.S. involvement — I call it “Robust Withdrawal” — that I will be explaining in future posts. I hope that thinking outside the box in this debate won’t be considered folding to the White House’s hand.

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