For the past three years, President Bush has set the course on U.S. policy in Iraq, and Republicans in Congress -- and many Democrats, too -- have dutifully followed his lead. Yesterday the Senate, responding to growing public frustration with the administration's war policy, signaled that those days are coming to an end.
The rebuff to the White House was muffled in the modulated language of a bipartisan amendment, but the message could not have been more clear. With their constituents increasingly unhappy with the U.S. mission in Iraq, Democrats and now Republicans are demanding that the administration show that it has a strategy to turn the conflict over to the Iraqis and eventually bring U.S. troops home.
"I think this is a clear sign that Republicans are walking away from the president, that they're no longer willing to tie their future and political standing to the president and his policy on Iraq," said Ivo H. Daalder, a Clinton administration official now at the Brookings Institution. "They found this was the easy way out -- an implicit rebuke, not an explicit rebuke. But this was a rebuke."
Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman John W. Warner (R-Va.) declined in an interview to call the Senate-approved amendment, which he co-sponsored, a repudiation of the White House. Instead, he said, it shores up the administration's arguments. He noted that the National Security Council staff had been shown the language in advance and was given the opportunity to critique it.
But Warner also said senators were "not unmindful" of widespread unease in public opinion about the war. Calling the next 120 days critical to success, he said the United States must do all it can to prevent Iraq from fracturing into civil war. But he added that the Senate vote was a "strong message to Iraqi people and the Iraqi government that you have got to come to grip with your internal problems. . . . It's a signal to the Iraqis that we mean business."
The jolt to the White House came just as the administration was attempting to beat back perceptions that the president misled the country before the war by overstating the strength of the intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction. That fight pits Democrats against Republicans.
En route to Asia on Monday, the president delivered another riposte to his critics, and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld joined in yesterday, quoting statements from the late 1990s by President Bill Clinton and others in his administration about the threat posed by Iraq.
If the fight over prewar intelligence has become a proxy battle over the question of whether it was right or wrong to go to war, yesterday's Senate debate moved the issue to another arena, to the question of whether the U.S. strategy to stabilize Iraq is working and what is the best way to end the occupation there.
James M. Lindsay, vice president of the Council on Foreign Relations, said the Senate action "doesn't change much in terms of the substance of American policy, but it clearly does signal a change in the parameters of the political debate. . . . It says the American political debate has now shifted to how to get out of Iraq."
There are still significant differences between the two parties on this second question, and sizable differences within the Democratic Party. In recent weeks, prominent Democrats, including Sen. John F. Kerry (Mass.) and former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (S.D.), have proposed far more explicit plans to draw down U.S. forces in Iraq. Others, such as Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (Conn.), remain strong supporters of the war. But the vote yesterday showed that Republicans are growing nervous.
Yesterday's action came on a pair of amendments offered to the defense authorization bill. The Democratic amendment, sponsored by Sen. Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and many others, stated that 2006 should be a year of "significant transition" to Iraqi sovereignty, with Iraqi forces taking responsibility for their country's security. It mandated quarterly reports to Congress by the administration on progress toward that goal, and an estimated timetable for the eventual redeployment of U.S. forces. That amendment lost on a 58 to 40 vote.
The Republican amendment, co-sponsored by Warner and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), embraced the bulk of the Democratic amendment but removed what the White House and some Republicans saw as the most odious language, the requirement for the administration to establish an estimated timetable for withdrawal. With that change, the amendment sailed through on a vote of 79 to 19.
It would have been easy for Republicans to defeat the Democratic amendment and leave it at that, but given the state of public opinion and the opposition to Bush's policies, Republicans needed a vehicle to show constituents that they understand the public's frustration -- and to signal to the White House that they expect more than statements of optimism about the pace of a conflict in which American troops are dying almost every day.
White House communications director Nicolle Wallace said the administration was not bothered by the day's events. "The Senate endorsed administration policy, which is a conditions-based withdrawal in Iraq. It also exposed a divide in the Democratic Party," she said.
Lieberman, one of five Democrats who oppose the Levin amendment, said he hoped the bipartisan vote would help diminish some of the partisanship that has surrounded the debate over Iraq of late. His goal, he said, is to maintain public support for the mission, but he said the administration must do more to bolster confidence in its strategy.
"This resolution does, on a bipartisan basis, say to the White House and the Pentagon, one, we want you to set out in more clarity what your plan is for success; and two, we want to be more involved with you in pursuing our mission in Iraq to a successful completion," he said.
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) called the amendment's request for quarterly reports by the administration on its strategy "an almost meaningless requirement," and said that, had the Democratic amendment passed, it would have been perceived as a vote by Congress to begin a hasty withdrawal -- an interpretation that Levin vigorously rejected.
The amendment by the Senate faces an uncertain future. But as political symbolism, the action yesterday showed the determination of the Senate to demand more from the administration. It also underscored how much elected officials are worried about public anxiety over the war. "That is where the public is," Lindsay said, "and the senators were making sure they were on the right side of the political debate."