By William Branigin and Howard Schneider
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, January 17, 2007 4:54 PM
Senate Democrats today introduced competing measures in opposition to President Bush's planned buildup of U.S. troops in Iraq, with Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) seeking a legislative cap on American forces there and a group that includes a leading Republican promoting a nonbinding resolution against the plan.
Dodd introduced legislation to cap the number of troops in Iraq at roughly 130,000, saying that lawmakers should take an up-or-down vote on Bush's plan to send additional troops to the country and not settle for the nonbinding resolution several Senate leaders prefer.
Later, however, Democratic Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Carl M. Levin (Mich.) were joined by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska in putting forward a resolution that describes Bush's troop buildup in Iraq as "not in the national interest of the United States." Hagel, a Vietnam War veteran, is considered a potential GOP presidential candidate in 2008.
"I will do everything I can to stop the president's policy as he outlined it on Wednesday night," Hagel said in a joint news conference on Capitol Hill with Biden and Levin. "I think it is dangerously irresponsible to continue to put American lives in the middle of a clearly defined tribal sectarian civil war."
In a separate news conference this afternoon, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) said she would support the nonbinding resolution, but she left open the possibility that she would later back "tougher" congressional action aimed at forcing the administration to change course in Iraq.
"From what I've heard out of the administration thus far, I think we will eventually have to move to tougher requirements on the administration to get their attention," said Clinton, who recently returned from a trip to Afghanistan and Iraq with Sen. Evan Bayh (D-Ind.) and Rep. John M. McHugh (R-N.Y.).
The administration's priorities "are upside down," and more U.S. forces should be sent to Afghanistan instead of Iraq, Clinton said.
"Rather than an escalation of U.S. troops, which I do not believe will contribute to long-term success in Iraq, we should be beginning a phased redeployment of U.S. troops as a way to put pressure on the Iraqi government to take responsibility for its own security and future," she said.
"We need to change course," said Clinton, who is weighing a 2008 presidential run. "It would be a great irony if the administration's emphasis on escalating our presence in Iraq caused it to ignore the threat facing Afghanistan, where those responsible for planning the September 11 attacks are still our enemies."
White House spokesman Tony Snow denied that Bush is moving U.S. troops from Afghanistan to Iraq.
"That's just not the case," he told a news briefing. "There will not be any direct move [of] just shipping people from one theater of battle to the other."
Dodd, who last week declared his candidacy in the 2008 presidential race, said that "the issues are far too important" for nonbinding measures. "Other than expressing opposition, I felt we should do something more," he said, calling for quick action before any troop increase becomes a fait accompli.
"The president has laid down the gauntlet by saying he is going to go forward and I don't care what you say," said Dodd. He argued that the authorization Congress gave Bush in 2002 to send troops to Iraq, leading to the March 2003 invasion and occupation, did not cover a situation that has since degenerated into a civil war among rival religious, ethnic and political sects.
Dodd announced his proposed legislation on a day when Clinton, in a series of interviews on morning television, endorsed troop limits and a possible cutoff of funds to the Iraqi government if it fails to meet security benchmarks.
Clinton said she supports starting "a phased redeployment out of Baghdad and eventually out of Iraq completely." However, she would not specify whether she would vote to block funding for the additional U.S. troops Bush wants to send to Iraq.
In staking out their positions today, the two probable competitors are likely to intensify debate over how aggressively Congress should challenge Bush's war policy -- and particularly his intent to commit an additional 21,500 troops.
Bush meanwhile called Republican senators to the White House today in an effort to rally support for his plan and dissuade GOP lawmakers from backing any resolutions against the troop buildup. The White House declined to say who was invited but acknowledged that lawmakers are generally skeptical of Bush's plan.
On the House side, Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) came out in support of a bill introduced by Rep. Sam Johnson (R-Tex.) to prevent Congress from restricting funds to troops already in combat. Blunt said any such restrictions would be "a recipe for troop demoralization."
Congress cannot "dictate strategy to the commander-in-chief," and lawmakers' power of the purse "is not to be taken lightly," Blunt said. "I hope Republicans and Democrats can unite behind the message that we support our troops in the field, and we will not cut their funding while they carry out their mission far away from their families and loved ones."
Unveiled in a nationally televised address last week, Bush's plan would focus on quelling sectarian violence in Baghdad and bolster forces in the volatile Anbar province.
Although announced in tandem with increased Iraqi efforts to take charge of their own security, the initiative has drawn bipartisan criticism in Congress and has received little support in public opinion polls.
But, despite winning control of the House and Senate in November elections that turned in part on public dissatisfaction with the direction of the Iraq war, Democrats are split on whether to simply criticize the president, or try to change his policies by imposing spending limits or other measures to restrict U.S. troop involvement in the conflict.
The split came into sharper focus this afternoon when Biden, the new chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Levin, who now chairs the senate Armed Services Committee, released their nonbinding resolution opposing the troop increase, with Hagel as a co-sponsor.
The resolution declared that "it is not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq, particularly by escalating U.S. troop presence in Iraq."
Clinton, in her television interviews, said she wanted to cap the number of troops and cut funding to the Iraqi government -- "for the training of their military, for the protection of the leaders, for economic reconstruction assistance" -- unless it makes progress on rebuilding its security forces and policing the country.
"I am opposed to this escalation," Clinton said on CBS News's "The Early Show."
She and Bayh plan to send a letter to Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates today urging the United States to send additional forces to battle an expected Taliban surge this spring. She said the United States should add two battalions in the southern part of the country, and keep a battalion in place in eastern Afghanistan, rather than send those forces to Iraq.
Bush is "taking troops away from Afghanistan, where I think we need to be putting more troops, and sending them to Iraq on a mission that I think has a very limited, if any, chance for success," Clinton said on NBC's "Today" show.
Snow, the White House spokesman, said today that members of Congress can do "whatever they want" regarding resolutions on the Iraq war but that they cannot infringe on the constitutional powers of the president. He said lawmakers should consider the message that their actions would send to U.S. troops and the public.
"I'm not going to try to characterize whether it does or does not constitute support for the troops," Snow told reporters, "but it is a question that those who are talking about these resolutions will have to answer to themselves and to the public."
Staff writer Debbi Wilgoren contributed to this report.