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Democrats React Harshly to President's Speech

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

More decisions on Iraq will likely come next on Capitol Hill where President Bush is expected to seek close to $200 billion more in emergency funding for the war. Democrats want a faster and bigger troop drawdown than what the president proposed last night. But they've been unwilling to use Congress' power of the purse to end the war.

Now, those Democrats are considering taking up measures on Iraq they had previously rejected as inadequate, all in order to win over more Republicans. And that could happen next week.

NPR's David Welna reports from the Capitol.

DAVID WELNA: Congressional Democrats chose a 12-year Army veteran, retired Captain and Rhode Island Senator Jack Reed to deliver their official response last night to the president's speech. And lest anyone doubted his loyalties, Reed was backed by a phalanx of American flags.

Senator JACK REED (Democrat, Rhode Island): Tonight, a nation eager for change in Iraq heard the president speak about his plans for the future. But, once again, the president failed to provide either a plan to successfully end the war or a convincing rationale to continue it.

WELNA: As for Mr. Bush's assertion last night that success in Iraq requires a U.S. engagement there beyond his presidency, Reed said flatly, an endless and unlimited military presence in Iraq is not an option.

But in his response to the speech, Republican Senate Leader Mitch McConnell focused on that same proposal and expressed confidence Congress would back a long-term presence either in Iraq or nearby.

Senator MITCH McCONNELL (Republican, Kentucky; Senate Minority Leader): I do know for a fact that many senators are saying privately - we'll see whether they'll see it publicly - that the end game here for the long-term is some kind of troop deployment of the United States in the region - maybe it will be in Iraq, maybe not - to give us the maximum opportunity to prevent further attacks on the homeland.

WELNA: Another Republican senator, Oregon's Gordon Smith, says few of his GOP colleagues have publicly broken with President Bush on the war as he has.

Senator GORDON SMITH (Republican, Oregon): Many Republicans, I think, find the stay-the-course message disturbing and unsatisfying.

WELNA: Smith says discontent has grown in Republican ranks to the point where a previously blocked measure might now pass in the Senate. It requires that before troops be sent back to Iraq, their home leave equal their previous deployment. Smith calls that a backdoor means of forcing more troop drawdowns.

Sen. SMITH: It will have the obvious effect of reducing numbers and forcing a -an earlier transition to post-surge footprint.

WELNA: That measure would possibly be added to a defense policy bill that Majority Leader Harry Reid yanked from the Senate floor in July after an amendment setting a troop withdrawal deadline failed. Reid intends to return to that defense bill next week.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): So I call on the Senate Republicans to not walk lock-step as they have with the president for years in this war. It's time to change. It's the president's war. At this stage, it appears clearly it's also the Republican senators' war.

WELNA: For all the tough talks, Senate Democrats now seem ready to drop the troop withdrawal deadlines they'd earlier insisted on.

Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin says it's a matter of practicality.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan; Armed Services Committee Chairman): To me, if we can pick up Republican support to get past the filibuster, I believe it's worth considering returning to a goal for the completion of the transition.

WELNA: But in doing so, Levin risks losing the support of passionately anti-war colleagues, such as Connecticut Democrat and presidential contender Chris Dodd who vowed this week he won't vote for anything without a troop withdrawal deadline.

Senator CHRIS DODD (Democrat, Connecticut; Presidential Candidate): Clearly, setting the time certain here. I think that's what's missing for the Iraqis.

WELNA: At the same time, some GOP senators facing tough re-election bids next year, such as Minnesota's Norm Coleman, seem increasingly reluctant to back the president on the war.

Senator NORM COLEMAN (Republican, Minnesota): I think we need to see a longer-term vision of troop reduction and mission change. And so that's what I'm looking at.

WELNA: So the Democrats' dilemma now, is how to win over Republicans like Coleman without losing more of their own.

David Welna, NPR News, the Capitol. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.
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