WASHINGTON -- With Republican support for the Iraq war cracking, Democratic leaders in the Senate are seeking to attract GOP support to force President Bush to begin withdrawing combat troops.
In a new series of votes on Iraq expected to begin tomorrow, Democrats will attempt to break the united Republican front that has sustained Bush and make their toughest push yet to enact firm dates for bringing the war to an end. So far, antiwar Democratic leaders appear unwilling to look for much compromise.
They are even skeptical of a proposal that just months ago would have seemed a daring challenge to Bush: to turn the Iraqi Study Group's recommendations into official policy and call for removing troops from combat in 2008. The plan, sponsored by Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, has attracted support from several GOP senators. But Democratic leaders are reluctant to allow it into the mix because it does not include specific terms for a withdrawal of US forces.
"We have an opportunity in the next couple of weeks to truly change our Iraq strategy," said Senate majority leader Harry M. Reid, Democrat of Nevada. "For those Senate Republicans who are saying the right things on Iraq, they must put their words into action by voting with us to change course and responsibly end this war."
Last night, after conferring with Senator Jack Reed, Democrat of Rhode Island, Senator Olympia J. Snowe of Maine said she would consider voting for binding troop-withdrawal legislation -- the third Republican to do so, after Senators Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon.
But most Senate Republicans, even those under intense political pressure in their home states, indicated last night that they are not prepared to embrace such binding time restrictions.
"The Iraqis need to take greater responsibility, clearly, and I'm not sure they are capable of taking the responsibility they need to take," said Senator Norm Coleman, Republican of Minnesota, who is up for reelection in 2008 and who has faced a blitzkrieg of Democratic advertising for his support of the war. "But the idea of simply leaving is something I don't think is going to make us safer."
"I just don't think it makes sense to announce to your enemies what date you're going to begin withdrawing and what date you're going to complete withdrawing," said Senator John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, another Republican facing reelection in an antiwar state.
This week's votes are part of a debate on the annual defense authorization bill. The first amendment, scheduled for a vote this afternoon or tomorrow, would limit the number of troops eligible for Iraq service by extending the time that soldiers and Marines must spend at home between deployments. Republicans complained that the provision does not give Bush enough leeway but speculated that many of their colleagues will support it anyway.
The debate will overlap with a July 15 deadline for the White House to report on Iraqi government progress in meeting a list of benchmarks that Congress established in May, when it approved additional war funding. Bush has promised a full review of the war in September, once the troop-escalation plan has been fully implemented.
But in the past two weeks, skepticism within GOP circles has spread. Three long-serving Senate Republicans have publicly repudiated Bush's Iraq strategy: Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, George V. Voinovich of Ohio, and Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico. But like other Senate GOP war critics, including John W. Warner of Virginia, none is endorsing a stipulated troop withdrawal.
Warner said yesterday that he would "withhold some ideas that I may have, which may be incorporated in one or more amendments," until after the July 15 deadline.
A big question mark is the fate of Salazar's proposal. The bill has picked up six GOP cosponsors and has attracted interest from other Republicans as a way to change course in Iraq without establishing deadlines or other restraints.
The group's 79 recommendations were drafted by a 10-person, bipartisan team led by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton, Democrat of Indiana.