By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Facing crumbling support for the war among their own members, Senate Republican leaders yesterday sought to block bipartisan efforts to force a change in the American military mission in Iraq.
But the GOP leadership's use of a parliamentary tactic requiring at least 60 votes to pass any war legislation only encouraged the growing number of Republican dissenters to rally and seek new ways to force President Bush's hand. They are weighing a series of proposals that would change the troops' mission from combat to counterterrorism, border protection and the training of Iraqi security forces.
"I think we should continue to ratchet up the pressure -- in addition to our words -- to let the White House know we are very sincere," said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who broke with the president last month.
The maneuvering in the Senate came as Bush traveled to Voinovich's home state to appeal for more time on the war, and as presidential candidates in Iowa and on the Senate floor escalated their rhetoric in a debate that once seemed headed for culmination in September but now appears to be fully engaged. House leaders announced last night that the chamber will vote tomorrow on legislation to begin withdrawing troops within 120 days, with complete withdrawal by April 1, 2008, unless the president reports to Congress why some troops must remain to fight terrorism or train Iraqi forces.
The president appealed to lawmakers yesterday to hold back on legislative responses at least until September, when Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, will deliver a crucial progress report on the military and political efforts there. And last night the White House formally declared that the president would veto virtually any of the war proposals being considered.
"I fully understand that when you watch the violence on TV every night, people are saying, 'Is it worth it, can we accomplish an objective?' " Bush told a Cleveland business group. "Yes, we can accomplish this fight and win in Iraq. And secondly, I want to tell you, we must."
On the campaign trail in Iowa, Sens Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Barack Obama (D-Ill.) delivered speeches assailing Bush's war policy, while Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) tussled on the Senate floor.
Speaking at the very moment that his campaign was announcing the departure of two top aides, McCain lashed out at antiwar Democrats who are advocating an immediate troop withdrawal, comparing such a move to when the Senate voted to cut off funding for U.S. troops in Cambodia in 1970.
"I've seen this movie before from the liberal left in America, who share no responsibility for what happened in Cambodia when we said no," said McCain, whose campaign has lost support partly because of his advocacy of the war. He singled out Mike Gravel, a Vietnam War-era senator from Alaska who strongly opposed that mission and is waging a long-shot antiwar candidacy for the 2008 Democratic nomination.
Biden jumped in. "Give me a break! Quoting Gravel as the voice of the left?" he exclaimed. "This is a man who, God love him, nominated himself for vice president. I mean, come on!"
Vice President Cheney attended a closed-door Republican luncheon to appeal for party unity in what Sen. Susan Collins (Maine) called "a vigorous debate." Sen. Ted Stevens (Alaska) said he took Cheney's side, telling his colleagues: "If we leave prematurely, it would be absolute anarchy. We'd be turning over to al-Qaeda one of the largest oil-producing states in the world."
But such sentiments are increasingly in the minority in the Senate. "June and May were among the bloodiest months of any since we've been there, and what has the Maliki government done? Virtually nothing," Collins said after the lunch, referring to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Beyond the war of words are serious legislative efforts to force change -- despite the 60-vote requirement that Republican leaders are banking on as a barrier.
Collins and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are seeking bipartisan support for an effort to force U.S. troops out of combat roles, restricting them to fighting terrorism, securing Iraq's borders and training Iraqi forces. The amendment would not require troop withdrawals, but because fewer troops would be needed for the new missions, tens of thousands could probably come home, Collins said.
The Maine moderate, who faces reelection next year in her antiwar state, is part of another bipartisan effort that would make last year's Iraq Study Group recommendations the new policy for Iraq, with a goal of removing combat forces by March 31, 2008.
That amendment was offered yesterday by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), despite the concern of Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) that it could shave Republican support from tougher approaches. Salazar's measure would require Bush to develop a comprehensive plan based on the study group's recommendations. But the White House would be free to adjust the timetables for the removal of U.S. combat forces and the transition of the mission to training and counterterrorism.
Sen. John W. Warner (Va.), a respected GOP voice on war policy, and Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, are collaborating on an amendment that would meld the bipartisan efforts. Warner said that he will not comment on the initiative until after Bush presents an interim progress report on Iraq, which could come as early as tomorrow. But, according to lawmakers familiar with the deliberations, Warner and Lugar will try to merge some of the Iraq Study Group recommendations, such as a renewed diplomatic push, with forced mission changes similar to those in the Nelson-Collins amendment.
All the measures attracting GOP support are weaker versions of the main Democratic amendments, which tie troop withdrawals to specific dates. But the outcomes could be similar. Even the consensus Democratic amendment could leave tens of thousands of U.S. troops in place.
That proposal, sponsored by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.), would begin troop reductions no later than 120 days after enactment. U.S. forces would then shift their efforts to targeted missions such as counterterrorism. The process would have to be completed by April 30, 2008.
The plan "says that America will no longer be the policeman of a civil war," said Sen. Gordon Smith (Ore.), the sole GOP co-sponsor of the Levin-Reed measure. "But no terrorists in Iraq can ever sleep peacefully because it does not call for a pullout from Iraq, but a responsible way forward."