The Anguished Moderate | Olympia Snowe

By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Sunday, July 29, 2007

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) was more disheartened than ever. On Tuesday, she packed into a small room on the Capitol's first floor with a small group of senators for a serious talk about Iraq and Congress's seemingly inability to reach a consensus on what to do about the war.

Snowe had already bucked her party's leadership to vote with Democrats on setting a withdrawal date for troops, but that effort failed. Now, she joined fellow Republicans such as Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), Democrats such as Sen. Ken Salazar (Colo.); the pair has been unsuccessfully looking for a compromise in the polarized Senate. There were also firm war opponents such as Senate majority whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.), and firm war supporters such as Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) Even Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.), a harsh war opponent, dropped by.

Despite their divergent viewpoints, Snowe said, most of the senators agreed that the war over the war was careening out of control. "I think people recognized we had to pull the process from the abyss," she said.

They considered that a letter be circulated to Democratic and Republican leaders, demanding more comity.

But Snowe was more ambitious, proposing a summit for the August recess among congressional leaders from both parties and President Bush to decide how both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue will respond to the September progress report from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. The goal would be, she said, "that we don't repeat the debacle that has occurred over last six, seven months over how we have considered this question."

It is not that she has tempered her own views in the hunt for bipartisan accord. That position was only hardened Tuesday by the president's speech accusing his opponents of abandoning the fight against al-Qaeda and by a new Washington Post poll showing that most Americans want Congress to take charge of war policy.

"After the election, the American people resoundingly repudiated the stay-the-course strategy. They didn't support an open-ended, unconditional participation in the military conflict in Iraq," she said. "Yet . . . his new way forward was the surge that he proposed in January. Basically, his position is diametrically opposed to what the public prefers."

But with August coming, the debate has frozen as lawmakers await Petraeus's report. The last thing Snowe wants is for that report simply to trigger the same, old endless recriminations. "We just don't want to have another political fiasco," she said.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company