By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, January 12, 2007
President Bush's proposal to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq encountered strong bipartisan opposition on Capitol Hill yesterday, and his top national security advisers, dispatched to defend the strategy, were greeted with a skepticism not seen from Congress over the past six years.
Lawmakers said they have little confidencethat the Iraqi government has the capacity to deliver on promises to take the lead in cracking down on violent militias and providing security in Baghdad, as the president's plan contemplates. Democrats and Republicans alike said they are concerned that Bush's plan, announced Wednesday night in a nationally televised prime-time address, is too little and too late and does not appear very different from previous efforts to secure the capital.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates sought to assure lawmakers that the plan can work if given time. Gates said he detected a much greater determination from Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to go after "all lawbreakers" with "no exceptions." He suggested that the prime minister will confront the militias fueling sectarian violence, including insurgents controlled by radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
Still, the ferocity of the congressional condemnation dismayed the White House, which had hoped to rebuild an element of bipartisan consensus around Bush's plan. It was further indication that the new Democratic Congress is headed toward a series of potentially epic clashes and floor votes over the conduct and funding of the nearly four-year-old war.
Congressional skepticism is being fueled by the public: A majority of Americans oppose Bush's decision to send more troops, and only one in three said the plan will probably make victory in Iraq more likely, according to a new Washington Post-ABC News poll.
Rice appeared to be on the receiving end of the toughest grilling yesterday, before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Not a single senator from either party expressed support for the president's plan, many posed hostile questions, and others expressed deep doubt about the Bush administration's premise of creating a viable democracy in the heart of the Middle East.
"I've gone along with the president on this, and I bought into his dream," Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio) told Rice bluntly. "And at this stage of the game, I don't think it's going to happen."
Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) offered a similar assessment. "I have supported you and the administration on the war, and I cannot continue to support the administration's position," he said. "I have not been told the truth over and over again by administration witnesses, and the American people have not been told the truth."
Rice maintained her composure throughout the hearing, which lasted more than three hours, conceding that doubts are warranted but pleading for patience. "I want you to understand that I, personally, too, understand and know the skepticism that is felt about Iraq and indeed the pessimism that some feel," Rice said.
Asked if she has confidence in the Maliki government, Rice said she did, adding: "I think he knows that his government is on borrowed time."
Appearing at Fort Benning, Ga., Bush told soldiers that daily life in Iraq will eventually improve but that his new strategy will not yield immediate results. "The American people have got to understand that suicide bombings won't stop immediately," Bush said. "The IED attacks won't stop immediately."
Administration officials said nothing to suggest that the troops will be coming home any time soon. At a morning news conference, Gates said the increase in troops is being viewed as a "temporary surge" but added: "No one has a really clear idea of how long that might be."
Gates also announced that he is recommending an increase in the size of the Marine Corps and Army by 92,000 troops over the next five years, and he joined other administration officials in offering new warnings about the power of Iran. He said one consequence of a failed U.S. effort in Iraq would be "an emboldened and strengthened Iran."
Former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group, issued a statement last night in which they raised questions about the "nature of the surge" and urged the president to further consider other recommendations in the group's report, including conditioning support for the Iraqi government on its meeting of benchmarks, creating an international support group for Iraq and beginning a transition that could enable U.S. forces to begin to leave.
In addition to the new security plan, Bush also called Wednesday for additional funds for economic reconstruction, and like the Iraq Study Group, for political benchmarks for the Iraqi government -- such as a new oil law and provincial elections. But unlike the study group, Bush would impose no penalties on the Iraqis for lack of compliance.
The White House is running the risk that the widespread discontent on Capitol Hill will mushroom into an embarrassing resolution disapproving the president's plan or, worse, the imposition of limitations on funding for the war. White House aides said they fully expected criticism from many quarters, but they expressed disappointment that, as they saw it, many lawmakers do not appear to be giving the new strategy more than a cursory review. More than 130 lawmakers trooped to the White House for personal briefings from the president in recent days -- but to little apparent effect.
Still, White House counselor Dan Bartlett expressed optimism that a showdown with Congress over funding can be avoided, despite a vow by some House Democratic leaders to try to derail funding for the additional troops. "It appears the Democrats are divided on that issue themselves," he said. "We obviously hope it doesn't get to that point -- and my personal opinion is I don't think it will."
Bartlett added that critics should do more than take shots at Bush's plan. "We do believe that those who have decided to reject this plan before it has an opportunity to work have a greater responsibility to propose something that will work," he said. "We have yet to see that from Democrats."
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) vowed to filibuster Democratic efforts to bring to a vote a resolution disapproving the policy, but opponents of the plan may be able to muster the 60 votes needed to break his parliamentary obstacle. Half a dozen Senate Republicans have come out against sending more troops to Iraq, with at least four others expressing skepticism. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) predicted that the resolution would pick up 12 GOP votes, a count McConnell did not dispute.
Across Capitol Hill yesterday, the administration also found the going rough. At the House Armed Services Committee, Gates and Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, were questioned extensively about the timing of the "surge" in troops, with several committee members from both parties questioning the level of commitment from the Iraqi government.
A House Republican letter to Bush opposing any increase in troop strength garnered nine signatures. Meanwhile, Democratic leaders said they will push a resolution on support for the president's proposal, and House Republicans said Bush risks a major defeat. For Republicans who narrowly escaped defeat in November, the coming vote could be a nightmare, they said.
"The White House will have to work 24 hours a day to find people on our side who aren't going to jump ship," said Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.). "This is a real serious dilemma for members in difficult seats. The next election will be about the White House, not the House. We will rise or fall on our nominee and how this war is going."
Rep. Thomas M. Davis III (R-Va.) said he "would not say there are a lot of enthusiastic members over here" in support of the president. "I have zero comfort level with escalating this," he said.
Staff writers Jon Cohen, Glenn Kessler, Peter Baker, Josh White, Lyndsey Layton and Lori Montgomery contributed to this report.