This is the start of a critical stretch on Iraq, with the White House looking to run out the clock until Congress takes its summer vacation, and Senate Republicans struggling to split the Iraq war baby -- moving away from the president's stay-the-course stubbornness while not embracing troop withdrawal.
But no matter how many Republicans abandon the president on Iraq, it is Democrats who must seize this moment and take the lead in bringing our troops home. They simply cannot wait for a three-decades-later sequel to the famed march down Pennsylvania Avenue taken by the wise old men of the GOP to convince Richard Nixon that the end game had begun. Because as bad as Nixon was, George W. Bush is infinitely worse.
So while Republican defectors from Bush's war policy need to show they're serious with their votes, Democrats need to show they're serious by giving the Senate a bill to vote on that would actually end the war.
At the moment, the Democratic plan is to introduce a series of amendments to the defense authorization bill that will force Senate Republicans to either turn away from the White House or stay on board an $8 billion a month runaway train that has left the tracks and is heading off the edge of a cliff.
So far, these proposals look like a mixed bag -- and run the risk of taking the focus off where it belongs: pushing a concrete plan that includes binding start and end dates for withdrawal.
For instance, Hillary Clinton is planning to team with Robert Byrd to introduce a proposal that would revoke the authority to wage war on Iraq Congress gave the president in 2002. Call it Operation Do Over -- perfect for politicians looking to rewrite the past. "The American public and our troops in the field are entitled to a new debate about this war," said Clinton and Byrd in a letter to Democratic senators.
Actually, they aren't entitled to "a new debate" -- they're entitled to a new policy. The American people have had plenty of debate on the issue, and they have chosen sides. They want us out of Iraq.
Barack Obama will offer an amendment geared to improving mental health services for soldiers returning from the war. This is clearly a worthy goal, but he should first -- or, at least, at the same time -- concentrate on getting those soldiers home. **
Another measure gaining traction is a bipartisan bill proposed by Ken Salazar and Lamar Alexander that would make the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group the official policy of the government. But since it only puts forth a "goal" of withdrawing troops by the end of March 2008 without setting an actual deadline, the measure is less of a plan than a political fig leaf. "The political power of Salazar's amendment is its ambiguity," said John Hamre president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "It's a way to give political cover." Ambiguity and political cover are the last things Congressional Democrats should be embracing -- unless they are hoping to see their approval ratings fall even lower.
Are the Republicans who are turning away from the president serious about ending the war? We won't find out unless Democrats are willing to step up to the plate and swing for the fences.
Ending the war in Iraq is not going to be easy. But it will be impossible unless Democrats provide some real leadership.
** Update: According to Ben LaBolt, Obama's press secretary, Obama plans to sign on to an amendment offered by Carl Levin and Jack Reed calling for troop redeployment to begin within 120 days of passage, with all troops to be out of Iraq by April 1, 2008 -- except for the forces needed for specified, limited missions such as border protection and counterterrorism.