WASHINGTON – Responding to a humbling election, White House aides said Sunday that President Bush would welcome new ideas about the unpopular war in Iraq, even from Democrats he had branded as soft on terrorism.
As Bush planned to meet Monday with a key advisory group on the war, his advisers adopted a new tone, days after a dissatisfied public handed the White House a divided government.
"Full speed ahead" in Iraq, as Vice President Dick Cheney put it in the final days of the campaign, was replaced by repeated calls for a "fresh perspective" and an acknowledgment that "nobody can be happy" with the situation in Iraq.
"We clearly need a fresh approach," said Josh Bolten, Bush's chief of staff, making the rounds of morning talk shows.
Democrats, meanwhile, showed they were not all in accord on how to proceed in Iraq. Although party leaders back a multifaceted approach to stabilizing the country, lawmakers have not unified on when to bring troops home without risking more chaos in Iraq.
Sen. Carl Levin of Michigan, the incoming chairman of the Armed Services Committee, urged that U.S. troops begin coming home in phases within four months to six months. He and Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the incoming chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, predicted many Republicans would support such a resolution now that the election is over.
"We have to tell Iraqis that the open-ended commitment is over," Levin said.
Yet the Senate's top Democrat, Harry Reid of Nevada, did not seem to go as far. He said he thought the withdrawal of U.S. troops should began within a few months, but when asked if he would insist on a specific date, he said, "Absolutely not."
The administration will not support a timetable for drawing down troops, Bolten said.
"Nobody wants to get the troops out of there more than President Bush," he said. "But they need to be there to support the Iraqi government, to make sure that the Iraqi government succeeds. And as soon as we can get them out, we will."
As the war dominated the U.S. political debate, there was more carnage in Iraq. Homicide bombs erupted in a crowd of police recruits in Baghdad, killing 35, while Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki rebuked lawmakers for putting party and sectarian loyalty ahead of Iraq's stability.
Attention, too, turned to Bush's meeting with the bipartisan Iraq Study Group at the White House.
Led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, the group expects by year's end to recommend a different course for peace and stability in Iraq.
Already, military commanders are re-evaluating strategy under the leadership of Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Bush also ousted Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld right after the election, after saying days earlier that would not happen.
"All these things are pushing toward one thing, and that is victory in Iraq," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said Sunday. "If there are good suggestions coming from either the Baker-Hamilton commission or elsewhere — members of Congress, both Republican and Democrat — we want to listen to them."
The tone of the conversation changed when Democrats won control of the House and Senate in Tuesday's elections.
Before Election Day, Bush said the Democrats' goal was to get out of Iraq, not win in Iraq, and that if Democrats swept to power, the terrorists would triumph and America lose.
A majority of voters — almost six in 10 — disapproved of the war, and they overwhelmingly voted for Democrats, according to exit polls conducted for The Associated Press. A solid majority of voters said the U.S. should withdraw some or all of its troops from Iraq.
"You know, it's a big disappointment for us in the White House to have lost control of both Houses of Congress," Bolten said. "But sometimes in adversity, there's opportunity, and hopefully we can take advantage of this opportunity."
Biden and Levin appeared on ABC's "This Week." Bartlett was on "FOX News Sunday." Bolten appeared on ABC's "This Week, CBS' "Face the Nation" and "Late Edition" on CNN. Reid was on CBS' "Face the Nation."