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.
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.