Sen. Harry Reid offered his cooperation in December when the Iraq Study Group unveiled its recommendations with a plaintive call for a bipartisan effort to change the course of the war. "Democrats will work with our Republican colleagues," promised the Nevada Democrat and soon-to-be majority leader, just weeks after an election that swept Democrats into the congressional majority on a wave of public frustration over Iraq. Eight bitter months and nine major Iraq-related votes later, the meaning of Reid's pledge has come into sharp focus: Democrats will work with any GOP lawmaker willing to vote for a mandatory troop withdrawal; other Republicans need not apply.
This bellicose, uncompromising legislative strategy — on display again this week as Reid refused to allow votes on nonbinding GOP-backed Iraq proposals — has been an obstacle to any real bipartisan compromise on the war all year. And it effectively ended any chance that a significant number of Republican lawmakers critical of the war would join with Democrats this summer on any Iraq-related legislation.
The Democratic strategy has yet to yield many tangible results. Just eight of the 250 Republicans in the House and Senate have joined with Democrats calling for a withdrawal.
And President Bush has shown no sign of retreating from his troop buildup, which has boosted the U.S. force in Iraq to 158,000.
But Reid's approach reflects a simple calculation by senior Democrats about how to force a president they see as stubborn to begin winding down U.S. military involvement in Iraq.
Reid and his allies, enraged by years of being brushed off and belittled by the White House, do not believe the president will respond to legislation that merely urges, rather than orders, a new course, even if it is backed by substantial numbers of congressional Republicans.
"The president doesn't take advice," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), chairman of the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and an architect of the current strategy.
Instead, in the face of continued defiance from the White House, Democrats in the House and Senate are focusing their efforts on making their Republican colleagues as uncomfortable as possible in the belief that that is the only way to get through to the president.
All year, Democrats have forced GOP lawmakers to vote on withdrawal proposals, betting that with each vote Republicans who back the president will feel the renewed rage of voters at home.
Democrats hope that, in turn, will drive Republicans to pressure the president to abandon his Iraq strategy or risk ruining the party's election prospects in 2008.
Since January, Senate Democrats have orchestrated nine major votes on measures designed to change course in Iraq; House Democrats have arranged for four.
Every proposal but one has died in the Senate, where Republicans have used that chamber's rules to block the measures.
(An emergency war spending bill with a withdrawal timeline passed but was vetoed by the president in May.)
This week, the latest proposal, which would have required that most troops be out of Iraq by April 30, died as Democrats failed to reach the 60-vote supermajority needed to cut off debate.
At the same time, Reid stunned Republicans when he shut down votes on alternatives that would have given them opportunities to back less forceful measures. The move locked a political escape hatch for GOP lawmakers, denying them opportunities to tell their constituents that they voted for legislation calling on the president to change course.
One measure — backed by Republican Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, both widely respected experts on national security — would have required the president to plan for a withdrawal, but would not have required the Bush administration to implement the plan.
A second proposal, which had collected six Republican and eight Democratic co-sponsors, would have called on the president to implement the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, including a new diplomatic initiative in the Middle East. However, it too would not have required a change in course.