By Michael Abramowitz and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Saturday, January 27, 2007
Declaring "I'm the decision maker," President Bush yesterday challenged congressional efforts to formally condemn his Iraq plan, while Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates warned that a proposed Senate resolution criticizing the deployment of additional troops would embolden the enemy.
"Any indication of flagging will in the United States gives encouragement to those folks," Gates told reporters at the Pentagon. "I'm sure that that's not the intent behind the resolutions, but I think it may be the effect."
Bush consulted with Gates and Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, who will head U.S. forces in Iraq, at an early-morning meeting at the White House. Speaking with reporters afterward, the president complained that lawmakers "are condemning a plan before it's even had a chance to work. And they have an obligation and a serious responsibility, therefore, to put up their own plan as to what would work."
Bush later met with House Republicans at a retreat on Maryland's Eastern Shore and, according to two Republicans present, mocked the Senate by telling the House members that he found it "ironic" that senators would oppose his plan to dispatch 21,500 more troops to Iraq but praise and unanimously confirm Petraeus, who helped design it.
Democrats responded angrily to Gates's comments, which were similar to what Petraeus said at his Tuesday hearing before his confirmation yesterday. "The American people will rightly dismiss these accusations as a desperate attempt by the administration to support a failed policy that is not worthy of the sacrifice of our men and women in uniform," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.).
House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) disputed Bush's suggestion that the Democrats have not come up with a plan. Speaking at the Brookings Institution, he said his party was united around the proposition that the United States should shift more responsibility to the Iraqis, begin a "phased redeployment" of troops and initiate more aggressive regional diplomacy to stabilize Iraq.
Yesterday's administration comments were part of a White House campaign to try to keep Republican lawmakers from signing on to any resolution that criticizes the president's new strategy in Iraq. By keeping down the number of Republican defections, the administration hopes to make any vote appear highly partisan and to buy Bush's new plan more time.
With Bush's leverage on Capitol Hill at a low, the White House appears to be relying heavily on GOP leaders to orchestrate the opposition to two resolutions condemning the troop buildup, according to lawmakers, lobbyists and administration officials. White House lobbyists and senior officials at the National Security Council are continuing to meet with lawmakers, but a number of senators said they did not perceive the lobbying as particularly aggressive. The strategy, as they described it, is to muddy the waters with a number of competing resolutions that could siphon support from a strong message of disapproval for the president's plan.
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Wednesday approved a resolution opposing the introduction of the additional troops, calling for more diplomacy and a regional peace effort, and demanding that U.S. troops be deployed away from urban sectarian hotbeds to guard Iraq's borders, hunt down terrorists and train Iraqi security forces. Bush defied Congress yesterday to come up with an alternative to his Iraq strategy, but advocates say the committee's resolution amounts to one.
Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) has offered a similar resolution, while also calling for measurable benchmarks in Iraq. Warner's resolution includes language accepting Bush's constitutional powers as commander in chief, leaves rhetorical room for some additional troop deployments and treats the fight with Sunni extremists in Anbar province as a matter separate from the sectarian violence in Baghdad.
GOP leaders, meanwhile, are coalescing around a resolution drafted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) that would establish strict benchmarks for the Iraqi government and the Bush administration to meet, without criticizing the president's plan. The leaders may also offer a simple resolution of support for Bush, saying the president's plan should be given a chance.
Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) said that the administration would still like GOP leaders to block any vote but that at this point even some of the most ardent Republican conservatives need some way to voice their skepticism on the record. The best the White House can hope for is what Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called a "smorgasbord" of resolutions that splits both parties and pulls senators in multiple directions.
Like other GOP lawmakers, McConnell said time is running out for the president. "I think everybody knows what the consequences are. The president doesn't have a stronger supporter in the Senate than the person you're looking at, but I repeat, this is the last chance for the Iraqis to step up and demonstrate this government can function," he said. "The message to the Iraqi government could not be more clear."
Administration officials say they realize their position on the Hill is precarious. Many Republicans blame the war in Iraq for their electoral debacle last November, and if the situation does not improve soon, the administration will be faced with massive defections within the GOP -- not only on nonbinding resolutions but perhaps also on bills that limit the president's ability to prosecute the war.
But several administration officials said they felt they had a good week, with Petraeus making an effective case for more time at his confirmation hearing Tuesday and only one Republican, Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), defecting when the Foreign Relations Committee approved the resolution against additional troops on Wednesday.
"No one is under any illusion that we are going to win over many Democrats or turn around the country. What we need to do is stabilize Republicans," said one senior White House official who was not authorized to speak on the record. While many Republicans are very anxious to vent their displeasure with the situation in Iraq, Republican stalwarts still seem reluctant to part with the president.
"I think he made the case in the State of the Union message . . . that this is the best that he and his military commanders can come up, so give us a chance," said Sen. Robert F. Bennett (R-Utah). "If you are going to say no, you better have an alternative."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson and washingtonpost.com staff writer Paul Kane contributed to this report.