WASHINGTON – While lawmakers rally around varying nonbinding resolutions expressing displeasure with President Bush over the Iraq war, Sen. John McCain announced Thursday he will try to set benchmarks for ending the violence.
"I'm trying to put something together that exercises congressional oversight that would provide some comfort to the American people and that certain benchmarks are being met as far as measuring progress or lack of progress is concerned," McCain, R-Ariz., a potential 2008 presidential competitor, said of the resolution he is crafting.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich, who appeared with McCain before reporters, said he is willing to work with McCain but "there have to be conditions" included in the resolution to establish consequences if the benchmarks are not achieved.
"We are in flux. We are still discussing what we should do," Levin said.
Levin is a co-sponsor, with Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., of a resolution that passed the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Wednesday saying President Bush's war plan is "not in the national interest" and U.S. military presence should not be increased.
The nonbinding resolution is headed to the Senate floor next week, along with a competing measure seen as a softer approach but still disagreeing with the president's plan.
Expressing frustration with progress for ending sectarian violence in Iraq, Levin and McCain said they also want to see benchmarks set by the Iraqis for themselves. They contend the White House has a list of them but is "stonewalling."
Levin, chairman of the Senate Armed Service Committee, said he and McCain are preparing a second letter to send to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking her to give them a copy of an alleged Powerpoint presentation that exists detailing the benchmarks. A prior letter was sent but to no avail.
McCain said concerns are legitimate about the lack of congressional oversight of the mission in Iraq, and "we need to work on setting benchmarks so the American people and the Congress know if we are making progress or not."
McCain added that the whole situation in Iraq has been exacerbated by the administration previously painting rosy scenarios about completing the mission, then later admitting the situation is deteriorating.
Nonbinding Resolutions Have No Impact on Bush
As the Senate heads toward debate next week over Bush's war plans, even some senators are questioning whether those proposals critical of Bush already on the table will have any impact.
"This vote will force nothing on the president, but it will confirm to our friends and allies that we are divided and in disarray," Sen. Richard Lugar, the Senate Foreign Relation Committee's top Republican, said Wednesday.
"It's the wrong tool for this stage in the Iraq debate. It is unclear to me how passing a nonbinding resolution — that president has said he will ignore — will contribute to any improvement or modification of our Iraq policy," said Lugar, of Indiana.
"Its passage will not benefit U.S. policy and it may actually harm the policy making process," Lugar continued, adding that he's not at all confident the president's strategy will succeed and called "dubious" the idea that clearing out terrorists from the high-risk areas in Baghdad will give the Iraq government enough room to force political reconciliation.
Despite Lugar's objection, the Democratic-led panel approved on 12-9 vote the Levin resolution, which was co-sponsored by Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joe Biden of Delaware, as well as Sens. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb. Hagel was the only Republican to vote for the measure.
The competing resolution, co-sponsored by Sens. John Warner, R-Va., Ben Nelson, D-Neb., and Susan Collins, R-Maine, lists criticism of any buildup of U.S. trooops and calls on the president to revisit the Iraq Study Group proposal, among other things.
Introducing the resolution on Monday, Warner said he was taking up the president's suggestion that critics offer a better plan rather than just disagreeing with him.
"I accept the president at his word. He did it not once, not twice, but I know of three times where he has said on national television and otherwise, 'I will listen to the ideas of others,' " Warner said.
Supporters say that if a majority of Congress approves either one of the competing resolutions, it will send Bush a strong message.
"My experience with this administration after six years is — and maybe yours is different — is the only way to get its attention is to make it crystal clear, crystal clear and publicly clear, that you take issue with what they're proposing," Biden said.
But the White House so far hasn't given any indication that a vote by the Senate would change the president's Iraq plans.
"The president is commander-in-chief. It is his constitutional obligation to keep the country safe. And he believes his way forward is the effective way to do it," White House spokesman Tony Snow told FOX News.
Republican strategist Pete Snyder said many of the resolutions' supporters, especially 2008 presidential candidates, are running "far, far away" from the president because "that's what happens when you're in your 30s on your approval rating."
Snyder said a leadership vacuum in the country means politicians are going to try to put up bold plans and clear directions, but barring those, the resolutions don't stand for much.
"It's certainly good politics for the Democrats to keep on bringing this up. So I am sure you are going to have resolution after resolution. They are going to be grabbing as many headlines as they can, but ultimately it's going to mean nothing," he said.
Some lawmakers are jockeying for stronger measures than resolutions. Sens. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., have separately proposed legislation aimed at binding the president's hands. Biden said Thursday that he didn't think any proposal stronger than a resolution could beat back a filibuster-proof 60 votes.
"This is clearly in the hands of the administration and of the president. Sure, Congress can pass all sorts of resolutions until they are blue in the face, but the only power they have is over the purse string," Snyder said.
FOX News' Trish Turner contributed to this report.