WASHINGTON, Nov. 12 — Democratic leaders in the Senate vowed on Sunday to use their new Congressional majority to press for troop reductions in Iraq within a matter of months, stepping up pressure on the administration just as President Bush is to be interviewed by a bipartisan panel examining future strategy for the war.
The Democrats — the incoming majority leader, Senator Harry Reid of Nevada; the incoming Armed Services Committee chairman, Senator Carl Levin of Michigan; and the incoming Foreign Relations Committee chairman, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware — said a phased redeployment of troops would be their top priority when the new Congress convenes in January, even before an investigation of the conduct of the war.
“We need to begin a phased redeployment of forces from Iraq in four to six months,”? Mr. Levin said in an appearance on the ABC News program “This Week.”? In a telephone interview later, Mr. Levin added, “The point of this is to signal to the Iraqis that the open-ended commitment is over and that they are going to have to solve their own problems.”?
The White House signaled a willingness to listen to the Democrats’ proposals, with Joshua B. Bolten, the chief of staff, saying in two television appearances that the president was open to “fresh ideas”? and a “fresh look.”? But Mr. Bolten said he could not envision the White House signing on to a plan setting a timetable for the withdrawal of troops.
“You know, we’re willing to talk about anything,”? he said on “This Week.”? “I don’t think we’re going to be receptive to the notion there’s a fixed timetable at which we automatically pull out, because that could be a true disaster for the Iraqi people. But what we’ve always been prepared to do, and remain prepared to do, is indeed what Senators Levin and Biden were talking about, is put pressure on the Iraqi government to take over themselves.”?
The spirited exchanges on the Sunday morning talk shows — a staple of weekend life for the political elite here, especially on the Sunday after an election that blew through Washington like a tornado — came at a delicate moment for the White House on Iraq. The bipartisan panel on strategy, led by James A. Baker III, the secretary of state under the first President Bush, and Lee Hamilton, a Democratic former congressman, will be at the White House on Monday to begin its final round of interviews.
The panel will meet separately with Mr. Bush and members of his foreign policy team, including the secretaries of state and defense, the director of the Central Intelligence Agency and the director of national intelligence, and will then interview Prime Minister Tony Blair of Britain by videoconference. On Tuesday, the group plans to meet with Democratic foreign policy leaders.
The panel is expected to make its recommendations by the end of the year, and Democrats said they did not intend to push a resolution for troop withdrawal until after the report was issued. But after Tuesday’s election, in which Republicans took what Mr. Bush has called “a thumping,”? Democrats used their Sunday appearances to signal that they believed they had a mandate about Iraq and would seize on it.
“The people have spoken in a very, very strong way that they don’t buy the administration policy,”? Mr. Levin said on ABC. Mr. Reid, in an appearance on CBS, said troop redeployment “should start within the next few months.”?
In June, the Republican-controlled Senate rejected two amendments on troop reductions backed by Democrats. One called for all United States combat troops to be withdrawn within a year. The other, whose sponsors included Mr. Levin, called for troop reductions to start by the end of the year without setting a deadline for complete withdrawal.
In the interview after his television appearance, Mr. Levin said that any resolution about troop reductions in the next session of Congress would not contain detailed benchmarks mandating how many troops should be withdrawn by specific dates.
As Democrats outlined their proposal to reduce the American presence in Iraq, Senator John McCain, Republican of Arizona and a likely presidential contender for 2008, reiterated his stance that there were not enough American troops there.
Appearing on the NBC program “Meet the Press,”? Mr. McCain said that “the present situation is unacceptable”? but added that any withdrawal from Iraq would create chaos throughout the Middle East.
Mr. McCain, emphasizing the importance of breaking the back of the Mahdi Army, the militia allied with the Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, said that the Iraqi prime minister “has to understand that we need to put down Sadr, and we need to take care of the Mahdi Army, and we need to stop the sectarian violence that is on the increase in a nonacceptable level, and I think that the best way to assure that is for him to know that we will do what’s necessary to bolster the — train and equip the Iraqi army, et cetera.”?
Mr. McCain added, “If we send the signal that we are leaving, of course, he’s going to try to make accommodations with others, because he knows what is going to be the inevitable result.”?
After a week in which both parties used the fallout from Tuesday’s midterm elections to promise a new era of bipartisanship, the Sunday television interviews suggested that profound differences remained over Iraq, the issue that proved central in the elections.
But there was one area on which Democrats hinted they might find common ground with the White House: the confirmation of Robert M. Gates, the former C.I.A. director, to replace Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, who had become a magnet for criticism about the war and whose departure was announced by Mr. Bush the day after voters handed Democrats majorities in both houses of Congress.
“I’m inclined to vote for him now,”? said Mr. Biden, who voted against Mr. Gates for the job of C.I.A. chief 15 years ago, adding, “To put it very, very bluntly, as long as he’s not there, Rumsfeld is there.”?
The White House is clearly looking to the Baker-Hamilton group to provide a path toward progress in Iraq. Mr. Baker and Mr. Hamilton have already told committee staff members to begin drafting parts of the report. But other commissioners did not see any of those drafts before the election, two members of the commission said in interviews last week.
“I guess the thinking was that anything that gets circulated before the election would get leaked, and one side or the other might use that for electoral purposes,”? said one member, who was granted anonymity because the commission is supposed to operate in secrecy.
Other members of the commission speculated that Mr. Baker, in particular, had been waiting to see the outcome of the elections, perhaps calculating that a major victory for the Democrats would put the White House in less of a position to challenge the recommendations.
The commission will meet again the week after Thanksgiving, when many of the most critical debates about options are expected to take place among commission members.
Mr. Baker has already made some of his views known. In television interviews, some timed to promote a book he has just published, he has expressed skepticism that a rapid withdrawal can be accomplished without setting off chaos or civil war, and has been doubtful that partitioning the country will work.
The message from White House officials on Sunday was that the president was indeed open to new ideas on Iraq, as long as they did not involve a plan with a specific date for beginning the drawing down of troops.
Dan Bartlett, counselor to Mr. Bush, said on Fox News that the president had directed the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, Gen. Peter Pace, to assess strategy in Iraq and would be open to listening to “good suggestions,”? regardless of where they came from.
But Dana Perino, the deputy White House press secretary, said in an interview that Mr. Bush remained adamant that decisions about how to deploy troops would be made by military commanders in Iraq.
“That didn’t change overnight on November 7,”? Ms. Perino said.