By Renee Schoof and Margaret Talev
WASHINGTON - Hours after U.S. commanders announced Thursday that the surge of American troops into Iraq will be larger and last longer than President Bush first indicated, Democrats in Congress decided for the first time to try to force the withdrawal of all U.S. troops from Iraq by a certain date.
Democrats in the House of Representatives would withdraw all troops by September 2008, or sooner if Iraq's government fails to meet certain benchmarks for progress. Senate Democrats announced a similar plan that sets a goal of completing withdrawal by March 31, 2008.
The developments in both chambers marked the strongest challenge so far to the White House over the war. Although it's unlikely that a firm deadline will pass both houses of Congress given Republican strength in the Senate, Democrats said their new efforts were an important step and a way to increase pressure on Bush to change Iraq policy and on the Iraqi government to resolve sectarian differences and end the nation's deadly violence.
Republicans denounced the Democrats' plans as an attempt to limit the options of Gen. David Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq. Petraeus said Thursday in Baghdad that he was considering keeping troops at higher levels well into next year and that more troops were needed to fight insurgents in Diyala province.
Pentagon officials had announced this week that the president's proposed surge of 21,500 troops in fact would require up to 30,500 service members in all.
Bush had put the total at 21,500 on Jan. 10, and Defense Secretary Robert Gates has spoken of beginning to draw them down by late summer. On Wednesday Gates said Petraeus needed another 2,200 military police and about 2,400 more support troops. His deputy, Gordon England, said earlier this week that support troops could total 7,000.
Dan Bartlett, a presidential adviser who was traveling with Bush to Brazil on Thursday, said the House Democrats' plan "would unnecessarily handcuff our generals on the ground, and it's safe to say it's a nonstarter for the president." He said Bush would veto any legislation containing such terms.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., dismissed a veto possibility.
"I say to my colleagues, 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," Pelosi said. "We have to pass it, show that it has support across the country, take the conversation to the American people. And, hopefully, he will hear them."
In the Senate, where Democrats command a razor-thin 51-49 majority, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., announced his withdrawal plan at a news conference that was intended to show that his caucus was largely unified behind him.
In the House, however, it wasn't immediately clear whether the 70-member group of Democrats that's calling for immediate withdrawal was ready to back Pelosi's plan.
Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., a member of the Out of Iraq caucus, said she'd vote against the plan. She backs a counterproposal by Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., that would withdraw all American forces by Dec. 31.
Rep. Jim McDermott, D-Wash., another member of the Out of Iraq caucus, said he needed more time to study the proposal. He and other Out of Iraq members met in a private session with Pelosi on Thursday afternoon.
Rep. Dennis Cardoza, R-Calif., a member of the "Blue Dogs" coalition of conservative Democrats, said he supported Pelosi's plan.
"I believe the firm benchmarks set out will push Iraqis to finally step up and take responsibility for their country. Ultimately, Iraq's future must be determined by Iraqis, not the United States," Cardoza said.
Pelosi's proposal would attach timelines for redeployment to the roughly $100 billion supplemental war-spending bill. It could reach the House floor within two weeks.
It also calls for:
_Troop redeployments that could begin as soon as July and no later than next March. With a 180-day redeployment schedule, that would have soldiers out of Iraq by September 2008.
_Adding $3.5 billion to correct poor conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and to increase efforts against al-Qaida and the Taliban in Afghanistan.
The Senate plan was similar, but wasn't attached to a spending bill. It would withdraw most U.S. forces from Iraq beginning 120 days after a joint House-Senate resolution was enacted. All combat forces would leave Iraq by the end of next March, but some American troops would remain for force protection, training Iraqis and fighting terrorists.
"We can't stay in Iraq forever. That's an understatement. The question becomes whether we'll continue to follow the president's failed strategy or whether we work to change course," Reid said.
Reid proposed to open debate next week, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., made a procedural move to block that, saying he needs more time to consult with fellow Republicans.
The House Republican leader, John Boehner of Ohio, said he'd vote against the redeployment plan and that he doubted it would pass.
"Republicans are not going to vote to tie the hands of our generals and our troops on the ground," he said. "Arbitrary timelines do nothing more than signal to the enemy what our strategy is."