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GOP senator sponsoring Iraq withdrawal bill

Times Staff Writers

In another sign of Republican unease with the president’s Iraq policies, a third GOP senator expressed support Thursday for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq under certain conditions.

Sen. Olympia J. Snowe announced she would sponsor a bill to require American commanders to plan a withdrawal within 120 days of the bill’s enactment, unless the Iraqi government meets a series of benchmarks.

“The Iraq government needs to understand that our commitment is not infinite,” said Snowe, a moderate from Maine who frequently departs from the party line.

President Bush has insisted that Congress not impose any limits on his conduct of the four-year-old war. But Snowe has taken issue with that view.

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“It is our business as well,” she said Thursday.

Snowe is not backing a Senate Democratic plan approved last month that would require the president to begin withdrawing troops within 120 days and would set a nonbinding goal of complete withdrawal by March.

But that plan did draw the support of two GOP senators, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon H. Smith of Oregon.

The Senate proposal and a House version approved last month -- which both include benchmarks for the Iraqi government -- are being merged into one proposal.

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Democratic leaders said they expected to have the compromise measure ready for a vote next week.

Bush, who has promised to veto the measure and has spoken out forcefully against it, took his campaign on the road Thursday at a town hall event in House Minority Leader John A. Boehner’s western Ohio district.

Bush met with about 500 people from the Dayton area selected by the chamber of commerce and Boehner’s office.

For the first time in more than a year, he engaged in a lengthy question session with an audience.

Bush repeated warnings that a precipitous withdrawal from Iraq would risk a wider war in the Middle East and allow extremists to “follow us here.” He also cautioned that chaos in the region “could cause the Middle East to enter into a nuclear arms race.”

Snowe’s legislation marks another challenge to a White House that has worked to keep GOP lawmakers on Capitol Hill from backing any congressionally mandated limits on the president’s war powers.

The effort has been very successful. Only two GOP lawmakers in the House and two in the Senate crossed the aisle last month to vote for the Democratic withdrawal plans.

And congressional Republicans have repeatedly reiterated their support for the president in recent weeks, traveling to the White House to stand with the chief executive.

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At the Capitol, Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) dismissed the effect of Snowe’s challenge to the president’s leadership.

“It doesn’t matter.... We’ve got plenty of votes,” said Lott, whose 49-member caucus could sustain more than a dozen defections and still prevent Democrats from overriding a veto.

Republican leaders Thursday focused their attacks on Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada, who said at a news conference that he believed “the war is lost.”

“I can’t begin to imagine how our troops in the field, who are risking their lives every day, are going to react when they get back to base and hear that the Democrat leader of the United States Senate has declared the war is lost,” said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

But Republicans face greater challenges to keeping their members in line as public impatience with the violence in Iraq mounts.

McConnell refused last week to say when he thought Americans would know whether Bush’s surge had succeeded.

But some Republicans who voted with the White House last month are saying privately that the president has only a few more months to demonstrate success.

In her proposed legislation, which has no cosponsors, Snowe put her own limit at four months.

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Under her bill, if the Iraqi government has not met the benchmarks -- which include disarming militias, amending the constitution and passing legislation to equitably share energy resources -- the U.S. commander in Iraq must submit a plan for withdrawing U.S. forces.

“Americans are losing patience with the failure of the leadership in Baghdad to end the sectarian violence and move toward national reconciliation,” she said.

noam.levey@latimes.com

james.gerstanzang@latimes.com


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