- The Washington Times - Friday, January 12, 2007

Rep. John P. Murtha yesterday distanced himself from the anti-war movement’s demands to bring U.S. troops home from Iraq immediately, but said he is exploring ways to block funding for additional troops.

“This group here today, they’re way ahead of me,” the Pennsylvania Democrat said of the Out-of-Iraq Caucus and the Congressional Progressive Caucus, which are comprised of the most ardently anti-war members of Congress.

Mr. Murtha, a member of the House Appropriations Committee, spoke to the groups yesterday during a forum about using the budget to prevent the Bush administration from boosting troop levels.

“I’m doing what I think needs to be done, and I’m doing it as quickly as I can,” said Mr. Murtha, a former Marine who rose to national prominence in 2005 by calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq.

Senate Democrats, meanwhile, softened their tone in the second day of hearings with administration officials on the Iraq war.

“I can’t help but note the difference in the tenor of this meeting today,” Sen. Bill Nelson, Florida Democrat, said to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who appeared before the Senate Armed Services Committee with Joint Chiefs Chairman Gen. Peter Pace.

Mr. Nelson was referring to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s testimony Thursday before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The low point of that hearing came when Sen. Barbara Boxer, California Democrat, said Miss Rice would not pay any price for sending U.S. troops to Iraq because she has no children.

Mr. Gates told the panel that President Bush’s plan for increasing troops was designed in part by Gen. George Casey Jr., the outgoing top military commander in Iraq, in conjunction with the Iraqi government. Opponents of the troop increase have said the president is ignoring advice from his generals.

Mr. Gates said the U.S. military thinks Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and his government “finally have the will to act” to restrain Shi’ite death squads.

Mr. Maliki, a Shiite, has been faulted for cracking down only on Sunni militias, which are engaged in a fierce sectarian conflict with the Shi’ites.

“This is, I think, a pivot point — the pivot point — in Iraq, as the Iraqi government insists on assuming the mantle of leadership in the effort to regain control of its own capital,” Mr. Gates said.

Democratic leaders face a dilemma. They want to block funding for more troops in Iraq, without withholding funds for those already on the ground.

“We must cut off the funds,” said Rep. John Conyers Jr., Michigan Democrat, during yesterday’s anti-war forum.

But the Democratic chairman of the House Appropriations Committee, Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, has said he does not think Democrats can block some funds while approving others.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s focus is on bringing a non-binding resolution against a troop increase to the Senate floor, possibly next week. The Nevada Democrat hopes that up to a dozen Republicans will vote against the increase.

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