For much of the debate over the Iraq War, it seemed that many Democrats were following the Republican lead on what to do and say. Now the situation appears to have flip-flopped.

Ever since Senate minority leader Harry Reid staged a surprise shutdown of the Senate on November 1, Democrats have pounded the Bush Administration for twisting and manipulating prewar intelligence. On Tuesday Senate Democrats finally injected themselves into the postwar phase as well. For the first time since the war began, Senate Democrats forced a vote on an Iraq exit strategy, offering a consensus amendment requiring the Administration to provide “a campaign plan with estimated dates for the phased redeployment of the United States Armed Forces from Iraq.” The wording united Democratic hawk Joe Biden and dove Russ Feingold on the need for a withdrawal timetable–a significant victory toward Democratic unity.

The Republican leadership, facing near catastrophic poll numbers on the Iraq issue, countered with their own amendment to the Senate’s larger Defense Authorization Bill. Senate Armed Services chairman John Warner and Senate majority leader Bill Frist took the Democratic amendment and deleted the crucial wording calling for withdrawal–sparing the Administration any real headache. Instead, the GOP version requires the Administration only to present quarterly reports updating the Senate on basic security tasks, such as the training of Iraqi troops. “Calendar year 2006 should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty,” both amendments state. With their countermotion passing by a vote of 79 to 19, Republicans defeated the Democratic proposal 58 to 40. (Five Democrats–Kent Conrad, Joe Lieberman, Mark Pryor, Ben Nelson and Bill Nelson–voted with the Republican majority.)

Such cosmetic political maneuvering isn’t likely to fool the American public, 57 percent of whom want the United States to immediately reduce troop levels, according to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. Across town, a leading Republican war critic, Nebraska Senator Chuck Hagel, delivered a further rebuke to the Administration’s crumbling stay-the-course strategy. “I believe the United States should begin drawing down forces in Iraq next year,” Hagel said at a speech before the Council on Foreign Relations. “The course of events in Iraq has laid bare the failure to prepare for, plan for and understand the broad consequences and implications of the decision to overthrow Saddam Hussein and occupy Iraq.”

Though he initially voted for the war, in June Hagel said “the White House is completely disconnected from reality” and “the reality is that we’re losing in Iraq.” Tuesday Hagel spoke in more measured tones and offered few specifics on how to get out, rejecting any timetable. But he was clearly irritated by the Administration’s insistence that criticisms of its Iraq policy “send the wrong signal to our troops and to an enemy that is questioning America’s will,” as President Bush remarked on Veterans Day.

“The Bush Administration must understand that each American has a right to question our policies in Iraq and elsewhere and should not be demonized for disagreeing with them,” Hagel noted midway through his remarks. “Suggesting that to challenge or criticize policy is undermining and hurting our troops is not democracy, nor what this country has stood for, for over 200 years…. To question your government is not unpatriotic–to not question your government is unpatriotic.”

Hagel, a Vietnam vet with two Purple Hearts, often garners comparisons to another Senate war hero, John McCain. But on this issue, Hagel and McCain couldn’t be further apart. McCain wants US troops to stay in Iraq indefinitely. Hagel believes the way forward in Iraq is to find a way out.

“Congress has been absent from this debate,” Hagel said. After listing the failures of the Bush Administration, he asked, “Where is the accountability?” Events Tuesday proved how far some in the Senate have come, and how far others still have to go.