February 27, 2008, Washington, DC — Undeterred by President Bush and Senator John McCain proudly pointing to progress in Iraq, Congressional Democrats are trying to mount new lines of attack against the administration’s war policies.
In a shift from last year’s failed legislative efforts to force a reduction of troops, the Democrats’ new approach is aimed primarily at framing the issue for the November elections by focusing on the financial cost of military operations and on the war’s implications for the nation’s troubled economy.
With the fifth anniversary of the war fast approaching, the Democrats, citing testimony by the Pentagon’s own commanders, are also emphasizing the strain on the armed forces. In addition the Democrats contend that the war against terrorism should be waged primarily in Afghanistan and Pakistan, not Iraq.
The change in tactics by the Democrats is one of necessity. The closest they came last year to forcing the administration to alter its war plans was in September, when they mustered 56 votes — 4 short of the 60 they needed — to advance legislation that would have required troops to be given as much time back in the United States as they spent overseas before being redeployed.
The Democratic presidential candidates have seized on the Pentagon’s announcement that when the troop escalation ends in July, there will still be 8,000 more soldiers in Iraq than when the so-called surge started because some support units will remain.
And on Monday a coalition of Democratic advocacy groups, with support from John Edwards, who ended his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination, announced a $20 million public awareness campaign to highlight “the crushing cost of the war.”
“We have to send a message here,” said Senator Jack Reed of Rhode Island, a West Point graduate and former Army paratrooper who has emerged as one of the Democrats’ most authoritative voices on the war.
“We have to have a long-term sustainable strategy; 140,000 troops is not sustainable in the longer term,” he said.
While they sought to focus last year on the all-consuming chaos in Iraq, Democrats now acknowledge that there have been recent security gains. But they say those gains may prove temporary, that political progress has been too slow and that given domestic concerns, the human and financial cost is just too steep.
Republicans, including the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, say they are happy to spend a few days talking about Iraq.
“We welcome a discussion,” Mr. McConnell said Tuesday, “which would give us a chance to talk about the extraordinary progress that has been made in Iraq over the last six months, not only on the military side but also with civilian reconciliation beginning to finally take hold.”
The war issue had faded from focus on Capitol Hill early this year as lawmakers spent the first weeks of the term negotiating an economic stimulus package. But it came gusting back onto the Senate floor on Tuesday with debate over two bills sponsored by Senator Russ Feingold, Democrat of Wisconsin.
The first bill would restrict the financing of military operations to fighting terrorism, protecting American troops and training Iraqi forces. The second would give the Bush administration 60 days to report to Congress on its global strategy for defeating Al Qaeda and would limit the length of troop deployments.
On war-related measures last year, Republicans repeatedly blocked Democrat-backed bills outright. But on Tuesday, Republicans appeared so confident and so eager to talk about the war that they voted overwhelmingly to bring Mr. Feingold’s first bill up for 30 hours of debate.
That vote was 70 to 24, with 43 Republicans joining 26 Democrats and one independent in favor of debating the bill, while 20 Democrats, 3 Republicans and one independent voted against it.
Mr. Feingold’s bills, which are certain to be defeated, are the first of several efforts by Democrats to press the war issue.
Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and John Kerry of Massachusetts returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Pakistan warning of a resurgence of Al Qaeda because of the continuing concentration of resources in Iraq.
And on Thursday the Joint Economic Committee, led by Senator Charles E. Schumer, Democrat of New York, will hold a hearing on the costs of the war.
This flurry of largely uncoordinated activity suggests that Democrats will take an aggressive stance ahead of the next report by Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, who will testify before Congress in early April.
General Petraeus is expected to recommend that the reduction in troop levels now under way be halted for at least a short period, starting in July, to assess the progress that has been made.
Despite the recent military gains, Senator Reed and other Democrats said they were confident that voters remained as weary of the war as ever.
“I think they are beginning to ask themselves questions like, ‘O.K., now that everyone says we have made real progress on the ground, why can’t we start coming out more dramatically?’ ” Mr. Reed said. “And now with the economy becoming such a central issue — $190 billion a year — why are we spending there instead of here?”
The Democrats are also focusing on the strain on the military.
In testimony before the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday, Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the Army chief of staff, said, “The cumulative effects of the last six-plus years at war have left our Army out of balance, consumed by the current fight and unable to do the things we know we need to do to properly sustain our all-volunteer force.”
The majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, said Democrats would continue to emphasize the cost of the war.
“We are not going to lose this subject; it’s too important to the American people,” he said. “If this war goes on another year, we will have borrowed a trillion dollars to pay for this war in Iraq.”