Compromise is beginning to sound like a dirty word to anti-war Democrats, who suddenly find themselves in a defensive posture after months of dominating the political debate over the war in Iraq.
The emerging movement among Democratic leaders in Congress to find some middle ground on troop withdrawal deadlines is being met with severe pushback from rank-and-file Democrats in both chambers who are startled that their leaders are suddenly seeking bipartisan consensus on the war.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) are working from a position of realism, knowing that their eight-month effort to win over enough Republicans to end the war has stalled. And Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.), two of the most respected military voices in the Democratic caucus, are considering a mandated withdrawal that lacks a completion date for pullout, leaving the process somewhat open-ended.
The Democratic movement reflects the expectation that there may be just enough positive news from Army Gen. David Petraeus' report next week to make some Democrats, as well as moderate Republicans, reconsider joining the anti-war crowd.
But based on comments from anti-war Democrats, the more moderate exit plan could backfire on Democratic leaders who will lose Democratic votes as they seek consensus.
Anti-war Democrats, along with the special interest groups that back them, are engineering a swift pushback against this spirit of compromise.
"Anything that takes us back from where we were this spring [a firm withdrawal date] is unacceptable," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Calif.), one of the founding members of the 70-plus member Out of Iraq Caucus in the House. "Bipartisanship is great ... only if it puts together an orderly withdrawal of the troops."
The anti-war movement is clearly scrambling in the wake of a series of reports that showed Democratic leaders more interested in compromise now than at any other point this year.
On group, Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, started running anti-war ads Thursday in New Mexico, Minnesota, Kentucky and Maine -- all aimed at targeting the incumbent GOP senators in those states. And another, the National Security Network, backed by liberal groups such as the Center for American Progress, questioned whether the Petraeus report will be a truly accurate assessment of Iraq.
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Even the report is released, anti-war Democrats have begun accusing Petraeus of "cooking the books" to justify the surge in troops that began last year. The liberal blogosphere, led by sites like Daily Kos, has been ablaze today with criticism of Democratic leaders.
Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.), a founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus, was critical of fellow Democrats who embrace the positive snippets of news from some corners of Iraq, saying the progress in some areas does not show the complete picture in the war zone.
"We're always going to have a number of Democrats who will lean over backwards to believe what they hear from generals on the ground," Waters said. "We're prepared to do what we have to do to avoid accepting a report that does not truthfully represent the situation on the ground."
While there are no pending House votes on the war, the Senate may bring the debate back in mid-September with the defense authorization bill, which may be the venue for the Levin-Reed compromise proposal. At this point, it's not even clear if Democrats will have enough support from their side to pass that measure.
"I feel very strongly about this. I could not support any bill without some real teeth," said Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.). "And that means a timeline for withdrawal. I can't continue supporting any bill without a specific withdrawal deadline."
Senate votes on troop withdrawal measures that have no completion date will also challenge the Democratic presidential candidates to figure out whether their votes should appeal to the Democratic base or reflect a desire to be consensus builders.
"Rather than picking up votes, by removing the deadline to get our troops out of Iraq, you have lost this Democrat's vote," said Sen. Chris Dodd of Connecticut, one of the Democratic presidential hopefuls. "It is clear that half-measures are not going to stop this president or end this war."
Daniel W. Reilly contributed to this story.
© 2007 The Politico