The Dems' Best Chance on Iraq?

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Brendan Smialowski / Getty

Senators Jack Reed (L) and Carl Levin

Can five times be the charm?

Michigan Sen. Carl Levin and Rhode Island Sen. Jack Reed certainly hope so. In this week's congressional tug-of-war over Iraq policy, their amendment to the defense spending bill — the latest version of one they've introduced four times before — has the best chance of ultimately winning the 60 votes required to give it a fuller Senate consideration. Finding 60 votes this time around is unlikely. But it is steadily gaining support.

Levin-Reed, which reached the Senate floor Thursday afternoon, is the most carefully engineered measure designed by Democrats to limit the scope of the war. It directs the Secretary of Defense to reduce the number of U.S. combat troops in Iraq and alter the remaining forces' mission to three smaller roles: force protection, training of Iraqi forces and counter-terrorism operations against al-Qaeda.

The measure would take effect no later than 90 days after enactment and require the Pentagon to complete the transition to supporting roles six months later.

Levin-Reed so far has been a triumph of hope over experience. That's because the Senate has voted on Levin-Reed four times in the last 16 months. In June 2006, a slightly different measure by the same name attracted 39 votes. But in March 2007, support jumped to 48 votes; in April of this year, the measure garnered the support of 51 Senators; in July, 52 Senators moved behind the measure.

Levin and Reed believe that with the return of Senator Tim Johnson of South Dakota, their measure will start with a baseline of 53 Senators, assuming no one changes his or her mind, as Virginia Senator John Warner did earlier this week on Jim Webb's proposal to limit the length of troop deployments overseas.

From the start, the White House has opposed the amendment. Levin and Reed have tinkered with their measure over the last year to attract more support. In July, they added a deadline for the Pentagon to conclude the transition from combat to support roles. One change since then is on the starting timetable: troop reductions are to begin within 90 days of enactment, rather than the previous 120 days of enactment. "We have to change our course," said Reed on Thursday. "That is at the heart of our amendment."

"As I stand here this evening," said Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee Monday night, "I can't tell you whether there are 60 votes for Levin-Reed." Yet he knows that the task of changing U.S. policy on Iraq is a long game. Even if the measure eventually is adopted, Levin noted on Monday, the President is likely to veto it. Levin pledged to be as patient about finding 67 votes to override such veto in the future as he has been about getting to 60 votes in the last 16 months.