Opposition to War Grows in the Senate

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) talks to representatives of the nation's veterans and their families during a news conference on the war. (By Win Mcnamee -- Getty Images)
By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 12, 2007

A bipartisan consensus to dramatically alter the U.S. military mission in Iraq began to emerge in the Senate yesterday, but no specific approach has yet attracted the broad support necessary for a veto-proof majority.

Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) has so far refused to bend on his demand for a firm timeline for troop withdrawals, despite signs that a growing number of Republicans may agree to slightly weaker measures that would still force President Bush to immediately change his Iraq strategy. Potential GOP defectors number about 10.

Surprising even his colleagues, Reid harshly dismissed the measure with the broadest bipartisan backing -- a compilation of Iraq Study Group recommendations offered by freshman Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.). The Salazar proposal, which as of last night had attracted six Democratic and six Republican co-sponsors, "won't change one thing that the president does," Reid said, who is opposed to anything short of legislation ending U.S. combat operations.

The Senate is focused on four proposals: One is Salazar's, which would adopt the study group's plan but would give the president latitude to make withdrawal timetables; another, advanced by Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), would force an immediate end to the U.S. combat mission without mandating troop withdrawals; another, still in the works by Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), would meld the two; and the main Democratic plan, 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.

Support for that provision remains far short of the 60 needed for passage, much less the two-thirds Senate majority needed to override a presidential veto. But it received a significant boost yesterday when two Republican senators, Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.), signed on. Snowe has long been a critic of the war but had until yesterday refused to support any mandated troop reductions.

"We have arrived at the crossroads of hope and reality, and we must now address the reality. We need to send a strong message from the United States Congress, on behalf of the American people, that the current strategy is unacceptable," Snowe said.

Votes on all the mission-related amendments are slated for next week. Meanwhile, the House will debate and vote today on a free-standing bill mandating that troop withdrawals begin in 120 days, with most troops out by April 1, 2008.

Reid's steadfastness prompted questions by many senators as to whether the Senate leadership actually wants legislation that could garner the necessary 60 votes -- or whether Reid would prefer to keep Republicans on the defensive, for political reasons.

"We're playing yo-yo, political yo-yo, with people's lives, and the country cannot survive this way of allowing the constitutional balance that has given us freedom for 200-something years to be changed because of the poll of the moment and the next election," said Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), a strong Bush ally.

But for now, Democratic unity appears to be forcing Republicans to take firmer stands against the president's policies.

Yesterday, on the first in a series of Iraq amendments to the annual defense policy bill, seven GOP senators voted with Democrats to break a Republican filibuster of a proposal from Sen. James Webb (D-Va.) to require longer troop rest periods between combat deployments. Six of the seven Republicans are vulnerable 2008 incumbents. The effort still failed 56 to 41, with 60 votes needed for passage. But the seven Republican votes were surprising, considering that a similar measure in the House last spring was roundly denounced by Republicans as a "slow bleed strategy."

Nelson and Collins officially introduced their amendment yesterday, seeking to drum up support for a measure that they say would force a sharp change in the mission in Iraq and a drawdown of forces without timelines.

Under the provision, the president would have to immediately shift U.S. forces from combat roles to protecting U.S. personnel in Iraq, training Iraqi security forces, securing the Iraqi border and fighting terrorism. The amendment sets a goal of completing that mission change by March 31, 2008.

The Levin-Reed plan 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.

Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) signed on to the Levin-Reed plan earlier this week. Hagel added his support when Democrats agreed to include his proposal that an international mediator be brought in to try to end the war under the United Nations' auspices.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company