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The Politics of the Iraq Timetable

The role of the Iraq war in shaping the issue agenda for the 2006 midterm election and 2008 presidential contest continued to grow today as the two parties offered dueling resolutions aimed at addressing increased concerns among the American public about the conflict.

In keeping with Senate Democrats' increased willingness to speak out about the need for the Bush administration to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Joseph Biden (D-Del.) offered a non-binding resolution to do just that.  It failed 58-40.

Republicans offered a counterproposal that called on the White House to provide more information about the Iraq conflict to the Senate but did not contain a provision seeking a timeline for withdrawal.  That resolution passed 79-19.

A look at yeas and nays on both votes is an instructive lesson about the confluence of politics and policy.

On the Levin resolution, only one Republican -- Rhode Island Sen. Lincoln Chafee -- crossed party lines to support the Democratic call for a timetable. Chafee sits in by far the Bluest state of any Senate Republican seeking re-election (John Kerry won the state by 22 points in 2004) and faces a serious primary and general-election challenge next year.

Similarly, three of the five Democrats who voted against the Levin proposal represent states carried by President Bush and are up for reelection in 2006: Sens. Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Kent Conrad (N.D.).  The other two Democrats voting "no" were Sens. Mark Pryor (Ark.) and Joe Lieberman (Conn.)

Every Democrat considering the 2008 presidential race supported the Levin proposal, including New York Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, Indiana Sen. Evan Bayh and Biden; all three of these senators have previously been wary of establishing a timetable for pulling U.S. troops from Iraq. Spokesmen for each said the vote was aimed at forcing the administration to consider the idea of a timeline and did not amount to an endorsement from the lawmakers for a specific withdrawal plan. Biden is expected to give a speech further explaining his position and the way forward in Iraq within the next few days.

The votes on the GOP resolution offered by Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (Tenn.), which could easily be read as a rebuke to the White House's information-sharing policies on Iraq, are also intriguing.

Every Republican Senator eyeing the 2008 race, with the exception of Arizona's John McCain, supported the amendment --  a sign perhaps that following the president's position on the war in lockstep is no longer tenable for politicians with national ambitions of their own.  The vote allowed each of the aspirants to paint themselves as supportive generally of the president's policy (as is much of the Republican base) while also giving them the chance to look as though they are not entirely satisfied with the situation.

Among Democratic presidential hopefuls, only Kerry opposed the Frist legislation. Kerry is the most high-profile Democrat to call for a specific plan to draw down the American forces in Iraq. Under the Kerry plan, that withdrawal would begin with 20,000 troops following the Iraqi national elections scheduled for next month.

By Chris Cillizza  |  November 15, 2005; 4:27 PM ET
Categories:  Eye on 2008  
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