Democrats closing in on Iraq troop withdrawal proposal

Plan may require the Iraqi government to meet benchmarks that would dictate the timetable for the departure of U.S. forces.

House Democrats attending a special Caucus meeting Tuesday said the leadership's Iraq plan remained a "work in progress," but added party factions were coming together on a plan to remove troops from combat areas by the end of 2008.

Rep. Steve Israel, D-N.Y., a member of the Appropriations Committee, said the plan laid out by Appropriations Chairman David Obey, D-Wis., would require the Iraqi government to meet benchmarks that would dictate the timetable for withdrawal of U.S. troops.

Israel said Obey's plan "seems to be the product of consensus, and the broad benchmarks would be bringing our troops out of combat areas as early as the middle of next year but no later than the end of next year."

That proposal could represent a compromise between the "Out of Iraq" faction and members of the moderate-to-conservative Blue Dog Coalition. But some liberal Democrats want troops redeployed immediately and some more conservative members do not want a timeline for withdrawal.

"I think you're getting fewer members demanding extremes and more trying to find a sensible compromise," Israel said. "So, obviously the ground is shifting, and they're trying to accommodate a lot of concerns ... It is a work in progress, but it seems like people are beginning to settle in at the timeframe that Obey has put out."

He stressed the plan would not fully satisfy what he called the "extreme" wings of the party. "In the meeting we just had, members who were insisting on extreme ultimatums weren't getting much applause. Members who talked about working together, cooperating and developing a good product got lots of applause," he said.

Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., acknowledged that resolving the issue "has taken longer than we thought it would." In addition to the troop restrictions, Hoyer said he expects language addressing the possibility of U.S. action against Iran.

Meanwhile, Pentagon officials told the House Budget Committee Tuesday they were finalizing a proposal to "reprogram and reprioritize" aspects of the $100 billion war supplemental request, which House appropriators hope to consider next week. The proposal, which might not be submitted in a formal request but simply included when the Democrats unveil their bill, might run close to $3 billion.

It would cut existing items in the package, such as two additional F-35 Joint Strike Fighters, to offset the additions. Deputy Defense Secretary Gordon England told the panel the request would include "somewhat more than $1 billion" to finance additional personnel to support President Bush's plan to add 21,500 combat troops in Iraq.

Other additions could include more force protection equipment, such as new mine-resistant vehicles. England said the Pentagon was working to redirect some resources to Walter Reed Army Medical Center.

Democratic aides also expect added spending for emergency agriculture assistance and to offset shortages in the State Children's Health Insurance Program. Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, on Tuesday repeated his pledge to ask Republicans to vote against the supplemental if it is loaded with non-germane spending or ties Bush's hands in Iraq.