Senior Democrats urge phased troop withdrawal from Iraq

Letter to Bush comes as Senate GOP leaders were hoping to fit in action on the fiscal 2007 Defense appropriations bill before August recess.

In an usually strong show of unity, 12 senior Democrats from the House and Senate have written President Bush to call for a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of the year, asserting that the "open-ended commitment in Iraq that you have embraced cannot and should not be sustained."

Their letter, sent Sunday as Senate Republican leaders were hoping to squeeze in action on the fiscal 2007 Defense appropriations bill before the August recess, foreshadows what could be another intense floor debate on the Iraq war. It also demonstrates a growing consensus among influential Democrats in both chambers who are increasingly frustrated with the ongoing operations and prefer to hand control of Iraqi security to the Iraqis.

"U.S. forces in Iraq should transition to a more limited mission focused on counterterrorism, training and logistical support of Iraqi security forces, and force protection of U.S. personnel," the Democrats wrote. "Mr. President, simply staying the course in Iraq is not working."

Last month, Senate Armed Services ranking member Carl Levin, D-Mich., sponsored an unsuccessful amendment to the fiscal 2007 defense authorization bill that would have required the military to begin decreasing the size of the U.S. force deployed to Iraq by the end of this year.

The amendment failed, 60-39, after several days of debate, exposing heated partisan disagreement over how to proceed in Iraq. "The intent [of the letter] was to get the folks who signed on to the Levin amendment on the Senate side, plus a relatively broad group of House Democratic leaders over here," a House Democratic aide explained Monday.

While the letter includes the signatures of Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., plus others who have spearheaded various troop withdrawal proposals, such as Levin and House Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member John Murtha, D-Pa., several less outspoken Democrats such as Senate Defense Appropriations Subcommittee ranking member Daniel Inouye of Hawaii, House Intelligence ranking member Jane Harman of California and House International Relations ranking member Tom Lantos of California, added their names.

Meanwhile, Democrats are "still discussing what to offer" as an amendment to the $453.5 billion Defense spending bill, including language addressing a phased withdrawal of troops, a Reid spokesman said Monday. "Timing for everything is very much up in the air." The Senate had hoped to begin consideration on the Defense spending measure as early as Tuesday, but prospects for completing the bill before the recess dimmed significantly in recent days.

As the clock ticks down on the August break, the Defense appropriations bill was vying for floor time with pension overhaul legislation, a measure to slash the estate tax and an offshore energy production bill. A Senate leadership aide acknowledged the Defense measure is likely to slip into September.

Greta Wodele contributed to this report.