WASHINGTON - House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, her party deeply divided and holding only a narrow majority, faces long odds in passing legislation that would bring troops home from Iraq before the 2008 presidential election.
Pelosi, D-Calif., has pitched a plan that would pay for the war in Iraq but demand that combat troops leave by Sept. 1, 2008.
The proposal immediately triggered a veto threat from the White House and rebukes from Republican leaders who predicted the GOP would unify in opposition.
Rep. John Murtha, chairman of a House Appropriations military subcommittee, said he was optimistic the effort would make a difference despite the difficulties. "This is going to start the end of the war," Murtha, D-Pa., told NBC's "Today" show.
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Most troublesome for Pelosi was dissent within her ranks, with several conservative Democrats saying it may go too far and liberals saying it did not go far enough. Her counterparts in the Senate also did not step forward to support the proposal, offering instead legislation that identifies March 2008 as a goal, not a demand, for withdrawal.
"We are a caucus and we will come together and find our common ground. And I believe, in the end, we will be unified on it," Pelosi said Thursday, a day spent shuttling between meetings with members in a bid to bolster support.
The vote - expected the week of March 19 - will be a major test of Pelosi's ability to lead a party elevated by voters angered by the four-year war. She will have to prove Democrats are living up to their promise to end the war, without running roughshod over moderates who oppose the war but do not believe in setting firm timelines for withdrawal.
Pelosi needs every vote she can get. Democrats hold 233 seats in the House, to 201 for the Republicans, with one vacancy, meaning they can afford only 15 defections to be assured of passing legislation. Overriding a presidential veto, which would take a two-thirds majority of the House, would be even more of a challenge.
"I believe the vote should be a vote of conscience," said Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee, D-Texas, one of 71 members of a liberal coalition opposed to the war. "My vote would be for a safe, fully funded withdrawal of troops" by the end of this year, she said.
Jackson Lee and other liberals are backing an alternative plan that would immediately limit the use of war funds to withdrawing troops, training Iraqis and other non-combat missions. It is doomed to failure, but Democratic leaders have been discussing whether to allow a vote on it if, in return, liberals would then swing behind their bill.
"It's time Congress finally caught up to the people we represent, people who recognized long ago that the Bush Iraq policy was and is a train wreck," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., co-chair of the Progressive Caucus.
Nearly every member of the Blue Dog coalition, a group of moderate and conservative Democrats, met Thursday to hear out Pelosi and House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md. According to attendees, several members said they oppose a provision in the bill that would prevent the president from attacking Iran. Another major issue for some was setting the hard deadline.
"In general, we need to give the commander in chief flexibility," said Rep. Jim Cooper, D-Tenn.
"There are an awful lot of members - not just Blue Dogs - concerned about a date certain" when troops would leave, said Rep. Jim Marshall, D-Ga.
A small group of Republicans indicated they might be on board. Rep. Walter Jones, R-N.C., said "conceptually, I think this is on the right track," while Reps. Wayne Gilchrest and Chris Shays, R-Conn., said they like the idea of holding the Iraqi government's feet to the fire.
Gilchrest, R-Md., said he might have been turned off by Pelosi's approach two years ago. "But we're talking about lives. This is life or death and Congress needs to be heard," he said.
White House spokesman Dan Bartlett said Thursday the president would veto the bill.
"What we're seeing here is an artificial, precipitous withdrawal from Iraq based on, unfortunately, politics in Washington, not on conditions on the ground in Baghdad," Bartlett said.
In a news conference with reporters, Pelosi shrugged off the inevitable.
"Never confine your best work, your hopes, your dreams, the aspirations of the American people to what will be signed by George W. Bush, because that is too limiting a factor," she said.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, acknowledged on Friday that the debate back home could prove useful to the Bush administration's negotiators.
"It does send a message to the Iraqis that the patience of the American people is running out and that is helpful to my diplomacy," Khalilzad told ABC's "Good Morning America." On the other hand, he said, "We don't want to indicate that we're going to leave imminently because that in turn could worsen the situation."