Republican support for U.S. Iraq policy erodes further

Posted in Iraq | 06-Jul-07 | Author: Carl Hulse| Source: International Herald Tribune

Republican senator Pete Domenici

WASHINGTON: Support among Republicans for President George W. Bush's Iraq policy eroded further on Thursday as another senior lawmaker, Senator Pete Domenici of New Mexico, broke with the White House just as congressional Democrats prepared to renew their challenge to the war.

"We cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress," said Domenici, a six-term senator who has been a steadfast supporter of the president.

Thus Domenici joined a growing number of Republican voices in opposition to the war just as Senate Democratic leaders are readying plans to put the political and policy focus back on Iraq next week.

The Democrats intend to use a Pentagon policy measure to force votes on proposals limiting spending on the conflict and setting a timetable for withdrawing most troops by next year — an idea Bush has already vetoed.

Domenici made it clear Thursday that he did not support such measures either, saying, "I'm not calling for an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops, but I am calling for a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to continuing home."

Still, within hours after Domenici spoke to reporters in a conference call, Senator Harry Reid, the Nevada Democrat and majority leader, called on him to join Democrats and like-minded Republicans to bring the war to a close.

"Beginning with the defense authorization bill next week, Republicans will have the opportunity to not just say the right things on Iraq, but vote the right way, too," Reid said, "so that we can bring the responsible end to this war that the American people demand and deserve."

Domenici is up for re-election next year, and his views on the war are likely to figure prominently in the campaign. His turnabout followed similar calls for a new Iraq policy last week by Senator Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, and by Senator George V. Voinovich of Ohio, another member of that panel. Senator John Warner of Virginia, a respected Republican voice on military issues who is also facing re-election, has also been pressing the administration to shift course.

Despite the mounting Republican criticism, it is by no means certain that Democrats have the votes to impose specific policy changes. Domenici and the other Republican critics are resisting any cutoff of money for Iraq operations, and they differ among themselves on what the United States should do in Iraq.

On the Democratic side, some lawmakers continue to resist mandatory withdrawal timetables while others suggest that they will support only measures that end spending on the war.

Still, prominent defections could free more Republicans to break ranks, particularly after lawmakers have spent a week at home attending Fourth of July observances and hearing from constituents.

"When you have senior, well-respected Republican senators like Dick Lugar, John Warner and Pete Domenici all calling upon the administration to pursue a new strategy, it is significant," said Senator Susan Collins, a Maine Republican also up for re-election next year.

She said her talks with voters convinced her that the war remained the top issue. And she joined Domenici in saying the patience of many Republicans with the Iraqi government was virtually exhausted. "It is very troubling to many of us that the Iraq government appears to be making little or no progress toward political reconciliation," she said.

At the White House, which has been urging Republicans to be patient, officials tried to play down the significance of Domenici's remarks. Tony Fratto, the deputy press secretary, said calls for a new strategy would not necessarily help Democrats in a quest for change.

Yet Fratto suggested the president was already thinking about a change. "It should come as no secret to anyone that there are discussions about what is a post-surge strategy," he said. But he added, "We would counsel a little bit of patience."

While some Republicans are slipping away, Bush retains a core of support among conservatives in the House and Senate. And even some of the others who face tough campaigns next year, like Senator Norm Coleman of Minnesota, have indicated they intend to wait until September to decide on their continued support for administration policy. A first report on the progress of a troop buildup in Iraq is due July 15, followed by others in September.

Senator John McCain of Arizona, a strong supporter of the war, has spent some of the Independence Day recess in Iraq with Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina. They are expected to share their observations, though aides said that major changes in their positions were not expected.

Speaking to reporters on a conference call from Albuquerque, Domenici said his change of heart came after conversations with the families of New Mexico soldiers killed in Iraq who asked him to do more to save those still serving there.

"I heard nothing like that a couple of years ago," he said. "I think that's the result of this war dragging on almost indefinitely."

Domenici said he would push for legislation that essentially enacted the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which called for military operations to be shifted more to counterterrorism, training of Iraqi forces and protection of American personnel and facilities. The goal would be to allow most combat troops to be withdrawn by March.

The Iraq Study Group proposal does not go as far as many Democrats would like. The leadership is planning to move ahead with as many as four proposals, including a retooled plan by the Democratic senators Carl Levin of Michigan and Jack Reed of Rhode Island that would require a withdrawal to begin within 120 days, with most troops ordered out by next spring.

No decision has been made yet on whether the study group's plan will be considered by the Senate. Democrats are expecting votes on a plan by Senator Jim Webb, Democrat of Virginia, to impose new troop-readiness requirements, another to eliminate spending on combat operations next spring, and perhaps a proposal to rescind the original 2002 authority for the war.