Key GOP Senator Breaks With Bush

Senator Pete Domenic
Senior Senator Pete Domenici (R-NM), left, the chairman of the Senate Energy and National Resources Committee, with Senate colleagues to his right, pauses before answering questions during a press conference on Capitol Hill celebrating the passage of the Senate Energy Bill. (Melina Mara/twp - Melina Mara - The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, July 6, 2007

White House efforts to keep congressional Republicans united over the Iraq war suffered another major defection yesterday as Sen. Pete V. Domenici (N.M.) broke with President Bush and called for an immediate change in U.S. strategy that could end combat operations by spring.

The six-term lawmaker, party loyalist and former staunch war supporter represents one of the most significant GOP losses to date. Speaking to reporters at a news conference in Albuquerque, Domenici said he began to question his stance on Iraq late last month, after several conversations with the family members of dead soldiers from his home state, and as it became clear that Iraqi leaders are making little progress toward national reconciliation.

"We cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress," Domenici said. "I do not support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops. But I do support a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home."

The White House had hoped that Republican lawmakers would stand back until a mid-September administration report on military and political progress in Iraq resulting from the president's troop-increase plan, which has boosted U.S. forces by tens of thousands. But Domenici said the signal to Bush should be clear: GOP patience is running out much more quickly.

"What we're doing here could overtake the way we're handling things over there," he said.

Yesterday, Domenici embraced a new legislative proposal to reshape U.S. policy around the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. In December, the bipartisan panel called for withdrawing most U.S. combat troops by March 31, 2008, although a limited number would remain in place for training and counterterrorism operations and other specific missions.

Democratic leaders waved off Domenici's announcement as all talk -- at least for now.

"Republicans will have the opportunity to not just say the right things on Iraq but vote the right way, too, so that we can bring the responsible end to this war that the American people demand and deserve," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.).

The Senate will reconvene next week to face a new round of Iraq-related votes as part of the annual defense policy bill, including various Democratic proposals to cut off war funding and to set a firm withdrawal date. But the dark horse may be the Iraq Study Group measure offered by Sen. Ken Salazar, a Colorado Democrat. Domenici quietly endorsed Salazar's proposal before the July 4 recess and announced his public support yesterday.

Salazar's bill has attracted 10 co-sponsors, including several lawmakers whose participation suggests that its cross-party appeal may be growing. The six Republican supporters include Sen. Robert F. Bennett (Utah), a close ally of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), and Sens. Judd Gregg and John E. Sununu, both of whom have remained loyal to Bush despite strong antiwar sentiment in their home state of New Hampshire.

Domenici and Sununu, along with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who also co-sponsored Salazar's measure, all face reelection in 2008 -- and are considered top Democratic targets. Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), the bill's original GOP co-sponsor, holds party leadership aspirations.

The five Democratic signatories are moderates. Along with Salazar, they include Sens. Bill Nelson (Fla.), Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.), and Blanche Lincoln and Mark L. Pryor, both of Arkansas.

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