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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)

Salazar said yesterday that Domenici's public endorsement could lure others looking for a "centrist alternative" on Iraq. Lee Pitts, an Alexander spokesman, said, "We hope that having his name on the bill will motivate others."

White House spokesman Tony Fratto stressed that the troop increase reached full strength less than a month ago, and that any sharp changes in war strategy should wait at least until September. "Senator Domenici is someone we have tremendous respect for," Fratto said. "We understand that senators and all Americans are frustrated."

He added: "You can't back out of the surge. The surge is in place, and it is going to be in place for some time. What we have to focus on and talk about is what happens sequentially next. And what happens next will be a decision that we have conversations about with Congress and with policymakers here and in Baghdad."

But, for Republicans, the floodgates have already started to break. Last week, Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the leading Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a rebuke to the White House on the Senate floor, declaring that the "current path" in U.S. Iraq policy is not acceptable.

Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, praised Lugar's speech and said he may offer his own amendments calling for a change in policy during the defense authorization debate next week. Sen. George V. Voinovich (Ohio) also endorsed a call for withdrawing troops, personally sending a letter to Bush with that request.

Before drafting the legislation, Salazar engaged in lengthy talks with former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), the study group's co-chairmen. The legislation was introduced in early June with little fanfare.

Many Democrats have dismissed it as a weak substitute for the tougher withdrawal terms that they want to force Bush to accept. But if Republican senators return to Washington in a state of mind similar to Domenici, Salazar's bill could become a serious legislative threat -- both to the White House and to antiwar Democrats, who favor a more definitive approach.

Domenici described to reporters the pleading tone he hears in phone calls with grieving families. He told of an exchange with one father, whom he quoted as saying: "I'm asking you if you couldn't do a little extra, a little more, to see if you can't get the troops back. Mine is dead, but I would surely hope that you would listen to me and try to get the rest of them back sooner."

Staff writer Michael A. Fletcher contributed to this report.

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