WASHINGTON — The story of the new Congress is actually two stories. Democratic leaders and their grass-roots supporters will decide in the coming days which narrative will prevail.

In January, Democrats dominated the news, the public agenda and the Republicans. In the last weeks of February, the Republicans came back — not by offering grand proposals but by using the limited tools they have to prove that Democrats don’t have enough power, yet, to end the war in Iraq.

When they first took control, Democrats looked crisp and disciplined, attributes not normally associated with their party. Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House quickly passed the Democrats’ popular campaign promises, including measures on the minimum wage, stem cell research and renewable energy and reforms of the student loan and Medicare prescription drug programs.

This agenda had its skeptics, but it provided focus for a party long out of power and drew significant Republican defections, feeding a raft of “Republicans in disarray” stories. Pelosi said at a January news conference that so many Republicans voted for the Democratic proposals that one of her colleagues joked, “Maybe you made these bills too easy.”

The Senate Democrats quickly pushed through a different version of the minimum wage increase, and the party’s leading foreign policy voices framed a critique of President Bush’s Iraq policy that squared with the public’s increasingly skeptical view of the war.

But recent weeks have seen nothing but trouble for Democrats — and it is odd, as one Democrat noted, that they should be on the defensive at a moment when the scandal over the treatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center has focused attention on yet another failed aspect of the administration’s handling of the war and its consequences.

Instead, one news story after another has highlighted differences among congressional Democrats over how to end the war. There is also the divide between the Washington party and activists at the grass roots and in the blogosphere. All of these problems are rooted in two unalterable facts: Democrats, on the basis of their thin majorities in Congress, lack the numbers to force an unwilling president to alter his course. And they are short of votes to cut off funds for the war altogether.

This week could well determine whether Democrats splinter or find a new strategy on Iraq based on the unhappy but realistic assumption that — unless Bush suddenly opens himself to new approaches — the fight to change course in Iraq is likely to go on all this year, and perhaps into the next.

The premise of any strategy, said Rep. Rahm Emanuel, chairman of the House Democratic Caucus, must be that “a lot of people were overshooting the runway on what one piece of legislation could accomplish.” Emanuel was referring to the effort of war critics to achieve too many of their goals all at once through the supplemental appropriations bill for Iraq and Afghanistan.

The Illinois Democrat (whose commitment to gradualism has won him some enemies in antiwar ranks) said House Democrats this week will attempt to narrow their focus to three problems they can address through the supplemental bill. They will add funds for the war in Afghanistan, to make the point that the president’s proposal “misses the mark” when it comes to defeating al-Qaida. They will place clear demands on the Iraqi government to prove its effectiveness. And they will “give the troops what they’re supposed to have, whether it’s training or equipment.”

Among some of the staunchest congressional foes of the war, there is a growing awareness of the obstacles they face. Rep. John Murtha, D-Pa., an antiwar hero, sent an important message to his allies when he said Sunday on “Meet the Press” that “we don’t have the votes” to cut off funding for the war.

Murtha is expected to offer a long-promised proposal this week that would impose readiness requirements on all troops sent to Iraq. But in an attempt to pick up moderate and perhaps even Republican votes, Murtha will add a provision allowing Bush to waive the requirement — putting the burden on the president to explain why he is sending troops into harm’s way with inadequate rest and training.

Democrats and the left face a testing time. For some in the antiwar movement, failing to end the war right now is immoral. But as Murtha suggested, a short-term strategy to end the war can’t work. This is a long struggle, and those engaged in it need to battle for the long term.

E.J. Dionne Jr.’s e-mail address is postchat(at symbol)aol.com.

© 2007, Washington Post Writers Group

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