Iraq Debate Will Test GOP Senators' Unity
Wednesday, March 14, 2007
With the Senate poised for a showdown on Iraq today, Republicans along the campaign trail and on Capitol Hill appear trapped between their loyalty to President Bush and growing fears about the war's impact on the party's political fortunes.
As Democrats have vigorously and sometimes angrily debated the war among themselves, Republicans have marched in near lock step behind Bush. GOP officials acknowledge that the paucity of dissent, in the face of deep public discontent, could jeopardize their chances of holding the White House and regaining majorities in the House and Senate in 2008.
The party's quandary comes as the Senate prepares to begin debate today on a Democratic resolution that calls for withdrawing U.S. forces by March 31, 2008, something Democratic leaders describe as a goal, not a firm deadline. Whatever peril the resolution carries for Democrats, the debate will provide a public test of Republican unity.
The lack of debate inside the Republican Party reflects not just loyalty to the president but also a belief that Bush's policies still offer a chance for success in Iraq, GOP officials said. But that has done little to calm growing fears that Republicans will be punished politically unless there is a dramatic improvement in the course of the war and Americans' perceptions about it.
"I don't think there is a lot of Republican anxiety that we're doing the wrong thing and it's hurting us," said Vin Weber, a Republican former congressman from Minnesota. "There's a lot of feeling that we're doing the right thing and it's killing us."
Neil Newhouse, a GOP pollster, said war support among the party's elected officials and presidential candidates reflects the attitudes of rank-and-file Republican voters. "It doesn't take a pollster to look at data among Republican primary voters to see that President Bush is still popular and his Iraq strategy is popular," he said.
But he acknowledged that the party's presidential nominee could pay a huge price in 2008 if the party appears indifferent to the views of most Americans. "There is no question that there's a general-election risk," he said. "This is one of these issues where the position a Republican candidate takes in the primary may be detrimental to that candidate's health in the general election."
The decision to proceed with debate in the Senate was a significant shift by GOP leaders. Last month, Republicans used parliamentary tactics to block the Senate from debating a nonbinding resolution opposing Bush's plan to send more troops. This time, Democrats are back with a different measure: binding language that would restrict military actions in Iraq. But Republicans have decided to let that debate proceed -- at least for now.
"Changing times call for changing tactics," said Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.). "We're adjusting to the circumstances that we're confronted with."
For many Republicans, the stalemate is deeply frustrating, signaling that the party places loyalty to Bush ahead of addressing what has become voters' paramount concern.
"It hurts both sides, the fact that the debate hasn't occurred," said Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), a moderate Republican. But, she added, "the disproportionate burden is borne by Republicans because we have a Republican president." The war debate has thrown Republicans off their political stride, with the heaviest strain on party leaders, presidential candidates and members of Congress who must answer to voters in two years.
Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, whose state is strongly antiwar, has already drawn several Democratic opponents for his 2008 reelection campaign. Assuming reasonable terms can be worked out, Sununu wants to see the Senate debate move ahead as quickly as possible. "It's unfortunate that we haven't had an opportunity to vote for all the different alternatives that are out there," he said.