From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, Huma Zaidi, Lauren Appelbaum, and Carrie Dann
Politics abhors a vacuum, and the delay in the debate over the resolutions opposing a US troop increase in Iraq is giving some of the bigger participants time to jockey for better positions. Two leading presidential candidates have further fleshed out their stances on the war, and the White House and Democratic Hill leadership have announced the formation of a bipartisan working group to discuss the way forward.
NBC's Ken Strickland reports that the still unnamed group would be assembled by Senate Majority Leader Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, likely consisting of chairs and ranking members of the committees with oversight of national security issues. The group "offers the best prospect for meaningful bipartisan consultations," per Reid spokesman Jim Manley. He added that leadership will urge President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and some Cabinet members to attend the meetings, the first of which will be next week. Strickland notes that a similar idea was first introduced last December by Sens. Joe Lieberman (I) and Susan Collins (R), leaders of the Senate's Homeland Security Committee.
Sen. Barack Obama (D), in a speech on the Senate floor last night, called for US troops to be withdrawn from Iraq by March 31, 2008 in order to end "a foreign policy disaster," although he did not endorse a cut-off in funding. His proposal goes further than those offered by his viable competitors for the Democratic presidential nomination. Obama is the only one of them who did not vote in favor of the war (not being in the Senate at the time), and he has consistently opposed it.
Next up came Sen. John McCain (R), whose support for the troop increase places him squarely on the opposite side of majority public opinion, and who has been seeking to temper his stance at the margins by arguing, for example, that Bush's proposed 21,500-troop increase probably isn't enough, and by criticizing Gen. George Casey's work as commander of US forces in Iraq.
Now McCain says the Administration has failed to adequately supply him with information critical to Bush's new strategy. Strickland reports that in a statement released last night, McCain and Armed Services chair Carl Levin said the Administration, after repeated requests, has not provided enough details on the benchmarks Bush has said he'll hold the Iraqis to. Over the past two months, Levin has sent Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice two letters seeking clarification on those benchmarks and any timelines associated with them. McCain signed onto a third letter earlier this month, Strickland says. In that letter, he and Levin said they found it "both baffling and disturbing" that Rice would not provide the information.
Per their statement, Rice finally did respond with a document presumably adopted by the Iraqis last year on political, security, economic benchmarks. But the senators felt the document "vividly demonstrates the failure of the Iraqi Government to meet the vast majority of its commitments." Rice also listed additional commitments made by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, but again, without details or timelines. "What Secretary Rice's letter makes abundantly clear is that the Administration does not intend to attach meaningful consequences for the Iraqis' continuing to fail to meet their commitments," they said.
And Sen. Joe Biden (D) finally/formally enters the presidential race today, filing online and announcing via the Internet. His campaign homepage's lead graphic shows Biden's image superimposed on a map of the Middle East. He also marks his announcement with another hearing on Iraq in his Foreign Relations Committee, which will feature former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright.
On the economy, President Bush is likely to lose out to the Fed for Wall Street's attention today. Bush delivers part two of his economic State of the Union in Federal Hall on the Street later this morning. The Fed will meet to discuss interest rates -- though probably not change them -- and issue comments about inflation and the state of the economy this afternoon. CNBC's Patti Domm expects to hear some of the same message Bush used in his State of the Union address last week, tailored to Wall Street. But, she says, the Street knows the issues already, and unless Bush is going to unload something new and big, his remarks won't capture much attention. A Washington-based economic analyst tells First Read that "Bush might get attention if he made a genuine effort on entitlement reform or ratcheted down pressure on Iran."