WASHINGTON – Two senators — a Republican and a Democrat — leading separate efforts to put Congress on record against President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq joined forces Wednesday, agreeing on a nonbinding resolution that would oppose the plan and potentially embarrass the White House.
Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Carl Levin, D-Mich., had been sponsoring competing measures opposing Bush's strategy of sending 21,500 more U.S. troops to the war zone, with Warner's less harshly worded version attracting more Republican interest. The new resolution would vow to protect funding for troops while keeping Warner's original language expressing the Senate's opposition to the buildup.
Levin replaced Warner as chairman of the Armed Services Committee when the Democrats took control of the Senate in January. Their resolution could well gain more support from members of both parties than their separate versions had been attracting. It lacks Levin's language saying the troop increase is against the national interest, and it drops an earlier provision by Warner suggesting Senate support for some additional troops.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he wants to begin debate Monday on the new measure, bypassing committee review. Levin's original resolution would no longer be considered unless offered as an amendment.
"I believe we have a better chance now" of passing a resolution against the president's plan, said Sen. Richard Durbin, D-Ill.
The resolution is likely to pose a threat to the White House because of its potential appeal to Republicans who have grown tired of the nearly four-year war and want a chance to express their concerns. The White House has been hoping to avoid an overwhelming congressional vote criticizing Bush's handling of the war.
"It's been a hard work in progress," Warner said of his resolution, which has been struggling to win support of 60 senators so as to prevent a filibuster.
The agreement comes as several leading Republicans who support the troop buildup said they will give the administration and the Iraqis about six months to show significant improvement. Many other Republicans say they are deeply skeptical additional troops in Iraq, rather than a political settlement, would help calm the sectarian violence.
The widely unpopular war has led to the deaths of more than 3,000 U.S. troops and is blamed for GOP losses in the Nov. 7 elections that handed control of Congress to the Democrats.
The House had planned on waiting for the Senate to vote as a way of testing the waters for Republican support of such a resolution. But according to a Democratic aide, the House may begin the process next week with a committee review. That would set the stage for a House floor debate the week of Feb. 12.
Warner had attracted at least seven other Republicans who were inclined to vote for his resolution. Scrambling to find additional support, Warner added language proposed by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., that would protect funding for troops.
As of late Wednesday, Gregg had not said whether he would support the revised resolution.
"Colleagues have come up to me and said, 'Can you assure me that this doesn't provide a cutoff of funds?'" Warner said.
Warner's resolution will now rival a proposal by Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., that would identify benchmarks for the Iraqi government. McCain's measure is intended to give Republicans an outlet for expressing that the U.S. commitment in Iraq must not be open-ended, without openly criticizing the president.
McCain's measure also picked up steam Wednesday, with Sens. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga., and GOP leaders saying they might support it.
"I don't think this war can be sustained for more than six months if in fact we don't see some progress," said Roberts. His comments came two days after Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said the new U.S. military push was the Iraqis' "last chance."
Bush on Wednesday objected to Iraq proposals from Republicans and Democrats alike and acknowledged that "there's a lot of pessimism" in Congress about his troop buildup.
In an interview with Fox News, Bush took issue with McConnell's statement that his plan needs to be successful over the next six to nine months.
"I think it's a mistake to put timetables on difficult missions because an enemy can adjust," Bush said. "On the other hand, I certainly understand the urgency in Mitch's voice. I also understand the skepticism on Capitol Hill. I mean, no doubt, there's a lot of pessimism there today."
In a statement after the president's interview, McConnell avoided mention of a specific time frame, but he stressed that the U.S. commitment in Iraq "is not open-ended."
"We will know in a relatively short period of time whether or not the Iraqis are committed, and initial results are positive," McConnell said. "Of course we would need to reconsider our strategy if this effort fails."
Bush also criticized a proposal by Sen. Barack Obama, a Democratic presidential candidate from Illinois, to have all U.S. combat forces out of Iraq by spring 2008. "I say that it's important to succeed and that failure in Iraq will cause chaos," Bush said. "My admonition to those who are speaking out is let us back the troops and let us hope for the success" of their mission.
Although deserted by some key Republicans, Bush said: "I don't feel abandoned. ... When times are good, there's millions of authors of the plan. When times are bad, there's one author, and that would be me."