By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, July 10, 2007
With Republican support for the Iraq war cracking, Democratic leaders in the Senate are seeking to attract GOP support to force President Bush to begin withdrawing combat troops.
In a new series of votes on Iraq expected to begin today, Democrats will attempt to break the united Republican front that has sustained Bush and make their toughest push yet to enact firm dates for bringing the war to an end. So far, antiwar Democratic leaders appear unwilling to look for much compromise.
They are even skeptical of a proposal that just months ago would have seemed a daring challenge to Bush: to turn the Iraq Study Group's recommendations into official policy and call for removing troops from combat in 2008. The plan, sponsored by Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), has attracted support from several GOP senators. But Democratic leaders are reluctant to allow it into the mix because it does not include specific terms for a withdrawal of U.S. forces.
"We have an opportunity in the next couple of weeks to truly change our Iraq strategy," said Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.). "For those Senate Republicans who are saying the right things on Iraq, they must put their words into action by voting with us to change course and responsibly end this war."
Last night, after conferring with Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.), Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) said that she would consider voting for binding troop-withdrawal legislation -- the third Republican to do so, after Sens. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.).
But most Senate Republicans, even those under intense political pressure in their home states, indicated last night that they are not prepared to embrace such binding time restrictions.
"The Iraqis need to take greater responsibility, clearly, and I'm not sure they are capable of taking the responsibility they need to take," said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who is up for reelection in 2008 and who has faced a blitzkrieg of Democratic advertising for his support of the war. "But the idea of simply leaving is something I don't think is going to make us safer."
"I just don't think it makes sense to announce to your enemies what date you're going to begin withdrawing and what date you're going to complete withdrawing," said Sen. John E. Sununu (N.H.), another Republican facing reelection in an antiwar state. "I don't think that's good policy."
This week's votes are part of a debate on the annual defense authorization bill. The first amendment in the queue, scheduled for a vote this afternoon or tomorrow, would limit the number of troops eligible for Iraq service by extending the time that soldiers and Marines must spend at home between deployments. Republicans complained that the provision does not give Bush enough leeway but speculated that many of their colleagues will support it anyway.
The debate will overlap with a July 15 deadline for the White House to report on Iraqi government progress in meeting a list of benchmarks that Congress established in May, when it approved additional war funding. Bush has promised a full review of the war in September, once the troop-escalation plan has been fully implemented.
But in the past two weeks, skepticism within GOP circles has spread.
Three long-serving Senate Republicans have publicly repudiated Bush's Iraq strategy: Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), George V. Voinovich (Ohio) and Pete V. Domenici (N.M.). But like other Senate GOP war critics, including John W. Warner (Va.), none is endorsing a stipulated troop withdrawal.
Warner said yesterday that he would "withhold some ideas that I may have, which may be incorporated in one or more amendments," until after the July 15 deadline.
A big question mark is the fate of Salazar's proposal. The bill has picked up six GOP co-sponsors and has attracted interest from other Republicans as a way to change course in Iraq without establishing deadlines or other restraints.
The group's 79 recommendations were drafted by a 10-person, bipartisan team led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.). The report set a March 31, 2008, goal for withdrawing most U.S. troops; it received muted praise from Bush, who said he agreed with some of its proposals.
"I hope the president will pick up where the Baker-Hamilton commission left off and . . . get us out of the combat business and into a different role," said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), a co-sponsor of Salazar's measure. Amendments with withdrawal dates, he said, "won't go anywhere with me." But, he added, "now's the time to begin to get our combat troops out of the way."
Reid said yesterday that he is unsure whether Salazar's bill will come to a vote. "What we do has to be more than something that feels good," he said. "It has to be something that calls for real change in our policy in Iraq."
Reid said he had held numerous talks with Salazar about how to toughen the bill and make it more relevant to current conditions. "Is it going to be something that has some teeth in it? If it is, certainly I'll put my arms around it. And I think most Democrats will," Reid said.
A bipartisan group of moderates, led by Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), is working on a compromise measure that would force a change of mission for U.S. troops, from combat to counterterrorism and border protection. He said the group will not call for troop withdrawals.
Reid has signed off on at least two withdrawal amendments. One would cut off funding for combat operations in the spring, and the second would begin troop withdrawals within several months, although without a firm date for completing the job. Rather, it would set a goal of withdrawing by spring, similar to the Iraq Study Group approach.
The latter may provide the most accurate measure of how much Republican sentiment has shifted in recent months. The Senate approved similar language in April as part of a war funding package, with just two Republican votes.
But as conditions in Iraq have worsened, Republicans have grown impatient with Bush's September timetable and wary about the political risks of supporting a deeply unpopular war. Just yesterday, the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service said the cost of the war has escalated to $10 billion a month since Bush deployed about 28,000 additional troops to secure Baghdad and Anbar province.
Underscoring the potential peril, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee will target four 2008 Republican senators on their war positions in an advertising campaign scheduled to begin today.
"Their effort to politicize [the war] is unfortunate," Coleman said. "This is a serious issue."