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House Democrats Back Away From Ending War Using Funds

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WASHINGTON (AP) _ House Democratic leaders are backing away from a plan to scale back U.S. involvement in the Iraq war by using Congress' most powerful tool _ withholding money in the budget.

Instead, party officials said Tuesday, leaders are weighing a proposal that would attempt to embarrass Bush into abandoning his war strategy. Under a plan discussed behind closed doors, Democrats probably would fund Bush's entire $94 billion request for war spending this year but require that any troops sent into battle that don't meet certain standards receive a presidential waiver and that Congress be notified of the shortcoming.

The compromise is an attempt to please members who want to end the war immediately by cutting funding and others who do not want to appear as though Democrats are turning their back on troops.

``I think it's a responsible approach,'' said Rep. Chet Edwards, D-Texas.

Democratic leaders also were considering adding money to help wounded troops, improve health care for veterans and speed funding assistance for hurricane-damaged communities.

The draft proposal, pitched to party members in a private caucus meeting, is considered by Democrats to be the next step in challenging the president's Iraq war policy. Emboldened by the Nov. 7 elections, House Democrats this month pushed through a nonbinding resolution denouncing Bush's decision to send 21,500 more troops to Iraq in addition to the some 130,000 already there.

But the next step has been a difficult one for a party divided on how far to go to end the war. Many Democrats favor Murtha's initial proposal to withhold money for war missions unless troops meet certain standards.

For example, Murtha, D-Pa., wants the military to adhere to its own goal of not extending a unit's combat tour beyond a year and allowing troops one full year before going back. Murtha, a Vietnam War veteran, also wanted the military to enforce its own traditional training and readiness requirements, such as training with the same equipment they would use in combat.

With the war reaching its fourth anniversary this spring, military officials have said these goals have become unrealistic and the force stretched thin by repeated deployments.

The latest proposal is intended to put the pressure on Bush; if troops are sent into battle without meeting the military's prewar standards for battle, he would have to sign a waiver and notify Congress.

Democrats disagree on whether the latest proposal goes far enough. Murtha briefed party members, along with Reps. Ike Skelton, D-Mo., and David Obey, D-Wis.

If ``we vote for the supplemental, I believe we own the war,'' said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., one of a group of liberal Democrats pushing for an immediate end to the war.

Bush ``hasn't to date done anything we've asked him to do, so why we would think he would do anything in the future is beyond me,'' Woolsey said of the reporting requirements.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., called the new plan ``a weakened version of what it was'' that could still allow troops to be sent into combat without the training and equipment they need.

Cummings suggested that Democrats had botched the issue by trumpeting Murtha's original plan to place strict deployment conditions on funding.

``I think that really kind of played into the Republicans' hands,'' Cummings said.

Whether the Senate would support the latest plan is unclear. Several key Democrats, including Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., are cool to the idea of restricting funds for the war but have said they want binding legislation to force a drawdown of troops.

A group of senior Senate Democrats are pushing to repeal the 2002 measure authorizing the war and pass a new resolution restricting the mission and ordering troop withdrawals to begin by this summer.

Reid, D-Nev., announced Tuesday he wants to put off votes on Iraq until the Senate passes a measure enacting the recommendations of the bipartisan 9/11 commission.

``Iraq is going to be there _ it's just a question of when we get back to it,'' Reid said, predicting it would be ``days, not weeks'' before the Senate returned to the issue.
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