Friday, March 9, 2007

For all the fanfare surrounding the announcement of the House Democrats’ Iraq war plan, few members seem to understand the specifics in the bill or when it would actually bring troops home.

The confusion added a layer of comic relief to a tense debate between factions of the Democratic Party as groups held dueling press conferences yesterday.

Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, of the Out of Iraq Caucus could hardly keep the details straight as she attempted to excoriate the plan proposed by her Democratic leaders.

“What they say is, if in fact there is no progress that we will pull out, if they can’t certify by October, by December, but if there is progress, if they are doing well, we will stay,” she said. “This would eventually get us out perhaps by March. The latest we would get out I guess with another progress report, or certification, by August of 1980.”

Come again?

“Wait — August ‘08,” Rep. Jan Schakowsky, Illinois Democrat, quickly corrected her colleague.

“Oh, August ‘08,” Mrs. Waters corrected herself. “That’s how confusing it is.”

The back-and-forth caused reporters to stifle laughs but also illustrated how few members had a part in crafting the bill and highlighted how it was a working document up to the moment Democratic leaders held their press conference explaining it — 25 minutes later than planned.

After House Speaker Nancy Pelosi carefully detailed the Democrats’ suggested benchmarks and requirements for President Bush to ensure that U.S. troops are fully ready before being sent to Iraq, reporters peppered her with questions to try and get the point.

“I’m confused,” one reporter told the speaker.

“OK, well, let’s try again,” the California Democrat responded. “If the president cannot demonstrate that progress has been made in reaching the benchmarks which he, President Bush, has established by July 1 of 2007, we begin — the 180-day period of redeployment begins, to be finished in 180 days.”

But, what happens between July 1 and Oct. 1? the scribe asked.

“If the president shows that progress is being made on July 1, say he can certify that, then we …”

“All he has to do is say progress is being made?” the perplexed reporter interrupted.

“Well, he has to certify and demonstrate that it has been. If he cannot — if he does that, that takes us to October 1, where we want to see the completion of those benchmarks. If that is not achieved, the 180 days begins.”

Some in the room giggled.

Exasperated, she concluded: “No matter what, by March 2008, the redeployment begins.”

Further adding to yesterday’s confusion, the total size of the spending bill was anyone’s guess. Surely it was upward of the “roughly $100 billion,” most speculated, as Rep. John P. Murtha, Pennsylvania Democrat, rattled off a few million here and there for veterans and as Democrats noted increased funding for Hurricane Katrina relief.

The Appropriations Committee could not even supply the price tag an hour after the Democratic press conference.

“It’s a work in progress,” panel spokeswoman Kirstin Brost said.

Appropriations Chairman David R. Obey, Wisconsin Democrat, didn’t reveal the bill’s total, though he did detail some of the benchmarks for progress required of the Iraqi government. Those include having an oil revenue-sharing law and amending the Iraqi constitution to improve relations among Shi’ites, Sunnis and Kurds.

“If they meet those political benchmarks, then even in that case our troops must be out of a combat role by October — I mean by August of 19 — of 2007,” he said.

Mrs. Pelosi chimed in, “2008,” adding, “If they meet those benchmarks.”

“I’m sorry, that’s right,” Mr. Obey responded.

Other Democrats in the Out of Iraq Caucus were none too pleased with the plan, saying 2008 is not soon enough.

The proposal is “very, very complex” said Rep. Lloyd Doggett, Texas Democrat. “It has waivers, exceptions, ands, ifs, ors and buts, all of which appear to leave the determination over our future in Iraq exclusively in the hands of the decider or the misleader,” he said, referring to Mr. Bush.

Rep. Lynn Woolsey, California Democrat, made the same 20th-century goof as Mr. Obey. She said the Out of Iraq Caucus plan would “fully fund a safe, orderly withdrawal of American troops and military contractors by Dec. 31, 19…”


She caught herself, saying: “Not 19, 2007. I’m back in the olden days.”

Mrs. Woolsey paused again, using the gaffe to reconsider: “Actually, we want our troops home with their families by Christmas.”

Adding to the confusion is a competing Senate plan to revise the 2002 resolution that authorized the Iraq war and require troops to leave by March 31, 2008.

Still, that chamber’s leaders did a better job pleasing a diverse Democratic caucus, with Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin calling it a “strong step toward ending our involvement in this misguided war” and promising to push for Congress to use its “power of the purse” to end the war.

White House spokesman Dan Bartlett, onboard Air Force One as the president headed to Brazil yesterday, gave predictable criticism of the Democratic plan. But he also tried his comedy routine, saying communication with Capitol Hill Republicans has “required almost hour-by-hour communication” because “the Democrats’ position has changed by the hour.”

• S.A. Miller and Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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