In the time since the historic election in Iraq, several liberal Democrats in Congress have been trying to kick-start a national debate–or at least a Congressional debate–on withdrawing US troops from Iraq. But this has been a tough mission, made even more difficult by resistance from within their party.

Just before the Iraqi election, Representative Lynn Woolsey introduced a resolution–with twenty-four Democratic co-sponsors–demanding the “immediate withdrawal” of troops, insisting that “Iraq is no closer to becoming a stable democracy than it was two years ago” and that this “losing effort” was not worth the life of another US soldier. Representative Marty Meehan released a white paper urging adoption of a specific timetable for a phased withdrawal over twelve to eighteen months. This would change the “dynamic” in Iraq, he says, by demonstrating that the United States has no intention of controlling Iraq and by creating space for the development of Iraqi political and security institutions. Similarly, Senator Ted Kennedy proposed that George W. Bush and the new Iraqi government negotiate a schedule for a “drawdown.” At least 12,000 US troops, maybe more, should leave at once, Kennedy said, “to ease the pervasive sense of occupation.”

The advocates of disengagement have yet to gain traction. House Democrats–especially in small numbers–have little ability to influence the agenda of the GOP-controlled House. (Only one House GOPer has broached the subject of withdrawal in public: Howard Coble, a North Carolinian close to Bush.) And the withdrawalists have basic disagreements among themselves. Each argues that US forces are fueling the insurgency. (“If we withdraw our troops,” Woolsey maintains, “we will remove a major cause for the insurgency.”) But while Woolsey wants to start removing all troops now and offers no timetable, Kennedy has proposed beginning with a modest withdrawal right away and completing the pullout “as early as possible in 2006.” Meehan does not support immediate withdrawal. “The chaos that would result,” he says, would undermine US credibility and destabilize the entire region. Eighteen months should be sufficient, he argues, to train an Iraqi security force that can effectively fight insurgents. He envisions a US force of 30,000 to 50,000 remaining beyond that time. “If I thought we could responsibly withdraw immediately, I’d be for that,” Meehan remarks. “But that could lead to civil war.” Asked about this possibility, Woolsey says, “Pulling out has more positives than negatives, but there will be negatives.”

While these Democrats appear unable to synchronize their withdrawal proposals, other senior Democratic senators–for policy and political reasons–do not want the Democrats to become the pullout party. On Meet the Press, John Kerry refused to endorse Kennedy’s plan. Carl Levin, a critic of the Bush Administration, said discussion of early troop withdrawals “is putting the cart a little bit ahead of the horse.” Joe Biden has blasted the White House’s handling of the war but declared he would vote for up to $200 billion to support the military mission in Iraq. He says talk of disengagement is “premature.” Evan Bayh, decrying Kennedy’s proposal, remarked, “I think to cut and run at this juncture would be a terrible mistake.”

The Democrats’ leaders in Congress have tried to straddle the issue, promoting what might be called an “exit-strategy strategy.” Both Senate minority leader Harry Reid and House minority leader Nancy Pelosi have called on Bush to develop an “exit strategy.” Neither has suggested starting or scheduling the removal of troops. Responding to the State of the Union address–in which Bush rejected “an artificial timetable for leaving Iraq”–Pelosi criticized the President for having “no clear plan…for ending our presence in Iraq.” She then listed the “key elements” of a “credible plan”: accelerating training of Iraqi security forces, speeding up reconstruction in Iraq, intensifying regional diplomacy. This was what Kerry pushed during the campaign. Pelosi said nothing about troop levels. Days after that, Kennedy noted that the schedule for removing troops should be negotiated with the new Iraqi government, with 2006 as a “goal,” not a “requirement.”

The call for withdrawal–as opposed to an exit strategy–has not spread quickly among Democratic legislators. But it has drawn partisan fire from Republicans and conservatives eager to brand Democrats as weak-kneed retreatists. And the Democratic withdrawalists have–so far–triggered a policy discussion mostly within Democratic quarters. “There is going to be a debate within the party on this,” says a senior Democratic Senate staffer. “If you conclude we can’t right the situation in Iraq, then why should one more person die? But if you believe that’s still possible or that pulling out will lead to even more of a mess that could threaten our national security, then you want to muddle through.”

Some Democrats fret about the political cost of adopting a position that would allow Republicans to depict them as defeatists. “I understand that fear very much,” Woolsey says. Fortunately, she adds, her district in Northern California is in tune with her own get-out-now stance. “Democrats are grappling with this, and it could end up being divisive,” the Senate aide observes. “We Democrats feel compelled to offer positive solutions. But this ain’t going to be pretty–either internally for the party or for what’s happening in Iraq.” Woolsey has no such concern. “I’m pleased,” she notes, “that I got the discussion going.”