WASHINGTON – Sen. Richard Lugar's criticism of Iraq war policy has led several Capitol Hill insiders to suggest that the Indiana Republican has cleared the way for more GOP defections from Bush administration strategy.
When lawmakers and aides were not debating immigration on Tuesday, all the talk in the halls of the Senate was on Lugar and his departure from White House policy.
"Republicans are paying attention to this, for sure," said one senior Republican leadership aide who didn't want to speak against the president.
Another said: "This really isn't good for the president."
Lugar, the top ranking minority party member on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a reliable vote for President Bush on the war, said in a floor speech late Monday that Bush's Iraq strategy was not working and the U.S. should downsize the military's role.
"In my judgment, the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved," Lugar said. "Persisting indefinitely with the surge strategy will delay policy adjustments that have a better chance of protecting our vital interests over the long term."
Lugar spokesman Andy Fisher said the speech does not mean Lugar would switch his vote on the war or embrace Democratic measures setting a deadline for a troop withdrawal. In January, Lugar opposed a resolution rejecting the troop buildup. In the Spring, he voted against a Democratic bill that would have triggered troop withdrawals by Oct. 1 with the goal of completing the pull out in six months.
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All the more why Lugar's latest assessment came as a surprise to many. Most Republicans have said they were willing to wait until September to see if Bush's recently ordered troop buildup in Iraq was working. However, eight Republicans have publicly questioned the war strategy and a couple are looking to make law out of the Iraq Study Group's recommendations.
"Senator Lugar's analysis of the administration's current strategy in Iraq is thoughtful and well-reasoned. His judgments carry great weight among those of us who are his colleagues, and I hope that the president will listen carefully to his advice," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, in a statement issued Wednesday.
Those who are surprised by the speech also know that Lugar never does anything off the cuff. He talked to colleagues and White House officials before he made his remarks. He told much of his thoughts to President Bush in a January conversation in the Oval Office, and the White House has already sought him out to talk more. National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley is meeting with him before the end of the week.
Changes to Come?
Lugar said he has been contacted by many of his colleagues, and legislation will be proposed, though he's not sure just what form it will take yet.
Virginia Sen. John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, is one of those Republicans working on his own legislation. He praised Lugar's "valuable contribution" and said the upcoming defense authorization bill debate will deal in great detail with Lugar's points.
Warner reminded reporters not just to focus on the September report deadline from Gen. David Petraeus, but rather the July 15 interim report deadline mandated in the emergency spending bill.
FOX News has also learned that Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio was sending a letter to Bush calling for a change of course and a troop reduction limited to the size recommended by the ISG, and presenting his own comprehensive "Plan E," calling it "A Way Forward in Iraq."
"Though it may seem contradictory, I believe we can accomplish more in Iraq by gradually and responsibly reducing our forces and focusing on a robust strategy of international cooperation and coordinated foreign aid. We must not abandon our mission, but we must begin a transition where the Iraqi government and its neighbors play a larger role in stabilizing Iraq," Voinovich wrote to the president.
Voinovich said Lugar's view is "widely shared among my colleagues," and while he has expressed dissatisfaction with the war before, this time he is calling for a drawdown. He said setting a deadline for withdrawal is the only way the Shiites will deal with Al Qaeda in Iraq.
"Al Qaeda are Sunni nuts. You think the Shiites are going to go for that? The answer to that is 'no,'" he said, adding that pulling out will also encourage the Arab League and the United Nations to be more supportive Others in the region, including Iran and Syria, may also step in to help as a result.
Voinovich, who's been working on his plan for months, said, "I have the greatest respect for our president. We've tried to give him time," but "time is running out."
He added that he hopes the administration will act on the suggestions from Republican senators.
"And if they don't listen, we may look at ways to make them listen," he said.
The Associated Pres contributed to this report.
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