WASHINGTON – Members of Congress, including many who have traveled to Iraq (search) to see the war for themselves, are wary about this weekend's election there and pondering such questions as whether Iraqi soldiers can be trained quickly enough to bring U.S. troops home soon.
Still, those lawmakers, Democrats as well as Republicans, are resolved to finish the war despite mounting costs and casualties.
The price tag was likely to rise on Tuesday when the administration was expected to describe a fresh request for an additional $80 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan (search), according to congressional aides who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"Whether you were for this or against this, we have to try to see this to a successful conclusion," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind., a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
They see Sunday's election to choose a national Iraqi assembly as the crucial next step toward Iraqi sovereignty and the eventual withdrawal of the 150,000 U.S. forces there. They also are jittery as election plans go forward, perhaps a reflection of general unease about the war among the American public.
"We had succeeded in the war, but we miscalculated severely what would happen after the war," said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "It's harder than we thought. We don't need an exit strategy; we need a success strategy, but we may have a different definition of success."
Several Democrats on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voiced their frustration last week during Condoleezza Rice's (search) hearings on her nomination to be secretary of state. In one of several sharp exchanges, Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., accused Rice of "an unwillingness to give Americans the full story" on Iraq.
"There's a growing impatience by the members of Congress and the public," added Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., another committee member. "It isn't a cacophony yet, but it's a growing voice of people concerned."
In the short term, Republicans and Democrats alike fear that the Arab Sunni (search) minority won't adequately participate on Sunday. They also worry that insurgents will disrupt the process and that all regions of Iraq won't be represented fully.
"It all may undermine the ability to have open and fair elections," said Rep. Marty Meehan, D-Mass., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, who returned from Iraq and Afghanistan just over a week ago.
Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., who sits on the corresponding committee in the Senate, said he doesn't expect a smooth election. "Elections in the United States aren't perfect, and this one won't be perfect," he said.
The training of Iraqi soldiers by U.S. forces also has become a top worry, with lawmakers saying it's taking longer than anticipated. "That was not encouraging," said Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.
He returned from Iraq last month with a bipartisan congressional delegation that included committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va. Early this month, Warner told reporters the visit revealed "a great deal of work needs to be done to achieve the level of forces that will allow our country and other members of the coalition to reduce force levels."
The rising number of U.S. casualties — climbing by 70 or more each month as the election draws near to at least 1,365 — also has been cause for alarm. The uptick prompted a small group of House Democrats to ask President Bush to start bringing troops home.
"Our troops are like sitting ducks," said Rep. Lynn Woolsey, D-Calif., the effort's ringleader.
Because of the casualties, at least one Republican, Rep. Howard Coble of North Carolina, is trying to spark discussion of withdrawal. "It is a component of the big picture, and it seems to me a component that has been virtually invisible," he said.
Other House and Senate members say they are worried about the stress placed on the National Guard and Reserve units, which are finding themselves on unusually long tours of duty. "Our troops are stretched so thin," said Rep. Jo Ann Davis, R-Va. "That's my top concern."
And then, there's the cost.
Republicans, and even Democrats, are adamant that they will spend whatever is needed to win the war because they say they must support the troops. "You can't fight a war on the cheap," said Rep. Peter Hoekstra, R-Mich.
So far it has cost $1 billion a week, more than $100 billion in all.
Some lawmakers fear the war is straining domestic programs.
Rep. Bob Menendez, D-N.J., a member of the House International Relations Committee, said taxpayers deserve a full "debate and review of the economic consequence of our counterengagement in Iraq, as it relates to our budget and rising deficits."