WASHINGTON -- Congressional Democrats have dramatically scaled back their plans to shape the course of the Iraq war, bowing to pressure from Republicans and conservative Democrats to pursue only nonbinding measures, at least for now, as they push to bring the troops home.
In the House, Democratic leaders now concede that they do not have enough votes to use their control over federal spending to force President Bush to begin withdrawing troops. Instead, lawmakers are drafting a far milder bill that would include guidelines for troop readiness -- requirements that the president could waive at his discretion.
In the Senate, efforts to repeal the original 2002 resolution authorizing force in Iraq have faltered as well, amid deep divisions among Democrats. Instead, Senate leaders are scrambling to find a compromise that would mandate a limited mission for US troops, but even that probably would not pass, and may not force the president's hand anyway.
With their thin majority in Congress, Democrats are now confronting the reality that finding a strong, legally binding antiwar measure that also keeps their party together may not be possible.
"It's a very delicate thing to be able to achieve, and I'm just not sure it can be achieved," said Senator Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska. "It's going to be tough. Maybe not impossible, but it's going to be tough."
The delay has only heightened liberals' calls for Democrats to force an end to the war, through steps such as blocking funding and mandating troop withdrawals by particular dates. But conservative Democrats and virtually all Republicans balk at such measures, making compromise elusive, Nelson said.
Democrats rode to power in November in large part because of antiwar sentiment. Party leaders vowed to quickly deliver on voters' desire to end the war, and polls have suggested that the public is growing more frustrated as US involvement in Iraq grinds on.
Yet two months after taking control of Congress, the grand total of congressional action on the war consists of a single House resolution that states formal disapproval of the president's decision to send more troops to Iraq. Even that measure, which does not carry the force of law, stalled in the Senate when Democrats could not overcome Republicans' procedural roadblocks.
The slow pace has frustrated liberal activists and their allies in Congress who want Democratic leaders to make bolder moves against the war. Today, a group of liberal House members will unveil a bill that would require the president to withdraw all troops from Iraq by Christmas -- a step that House leaders have not endorsed.
"We're at a point where war becomes more familiar than peace," said Representative Dennis J. Kucinich, a liberal Ohio Democrat who is running for president. "This is really a pivotal moment for the Democrats, and for this country. . . . It's almost as if we're sleepwalking through the graveyard of history."
The Democrats' hurdles highlight the politically perilous nature of foreign policy debates whenever US troops are serving abroad, said Alan Wolfe, a political science professor at Boston College. Republicans, eager to portray Democrats as undermining troops in harm's way, have been virtually daring the party to cut off war funding.
"I can understand why some Democrats would be reluctant to do something politically," Wolfe said. "But it's just a shame. Our election indicated that the people want a change in direction."
Democratic leaders have been trying to tamp down intra party divisions about the war.
Pointing out an explosion of bad headlines for the Republican-led White House -- including the scandal over the medical care provided to troops and the felony conviction of Vice President Dick Cheney's former chief of staff, I. Lewis "Scooter" Libby -- they are urging rank-and-file Democrats to be patient while the GOP reels.
Party leaders contend that they are making the best of a tricky political circumstance. Senate Democrats are planning to vote as soon as next week on a measure to reduce the US combat presence in Iraq by redefining the mission "in a more limited way," said Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
Levin conceded that his party, which controls 51 Senate seats, probably cannot gather the 60 votes it needs to pass the legislation. But he added that even symbolic steps carry messages.
"This serves a very important purpose in any event," Levin said. "Not just moving the president, hopefully, with an expression of Congress, but also moving the Iraqi leaders to a recognition that [having US forces in Iraq] is not an open-ended commitment."
In the House, antiwar Democrats are threatening to vote against the war-funding bill unless they first get to vote on a measure that would force an end to the war. But some moderate Democrats say their party should not force them to take such a politically dangerous vote .
Representative Michael E. Capuano, a Somerville Democrat who is among those pressing for a vote to end the war, said he realizes that there is no realistic chance such a bill will succeed. But he said he and his colleagues believe that the public deserves to see a legislative vote on the war, regardless of the outcome.
"This is the most important issue of the day," Capuano said. "I want a vote that makes me comfortable, that says, 'Get out.' "
He said he is frustrated by the pace but realizes that Democratic leaders need time to build consensus on such a vexing issue.
"It'll come. It's not coming fast enough for me, but it's not an easy issue," Capuano said.