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Senate closer to Iraq rebuke

Times Staff Writer

Senate opponents of President Bush’s decision to deploy additional troops in Iraq were unifying Wednesday night behind a single resolution criticizing the plan, increasing the chances that Congress will vote to formally rebuke the White House.

Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) announced that he was amending his nonbinding resolution that says the Senate “disagrees” with the buildup, adding clauses opposing any cutoff of funds for troops in the field and calling for written commitments from the Iraqi government to achieve certain goals.

The revised resolution drew the immediate endorsement of Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine). Both had been pushing an alternative resolution that more forcefully opposed the president’s plan.

And Senate Democratic leaders indicated they would back the Warner proposal as well. “I believe we have a better chance now,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin of Illinois, the No. 2 Democrat.

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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said there was “near unanimity” among Democrats, adding that he wanted to make the Warner proposal the basis for debate Monday, when the Senate is expected to consider the issue.

Reid acknowledged that an alternative resolution sponsored by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), as well as Levin and Snowe, could not garner the GOP support to reach the 60 votes needed to overcome a promised Republican filibuster.

Warner’s changes appear designed to win over more Republicans, seven of whom have already expressed support for some legislative critique of the president’s intention to increase troop levels by 21,500 to contain sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiites.

In an apparent nod to many GOP lawmakers who have fretted publicly about Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, Warner and his cosponsors strengthened language calling for the prime minister to agree to written benchmarks.

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These include deploying additional Iraqi security forces to work with U.S. troops, “ensuring equitable distribution” of oil resources and an end to “political intervention” in the tactical decisions of Iraqi commanders. The resolution does not spell out any consequences if the Iraqis fail to comply.

The amended resolution also includes criticism of the complicated command structure in Baghdad that creates two chains of command for Iraqis and Americans, an issue raised by several former military and government officials in the last week.

And it clarifies language in the resolution that some Democrats complained could be read to imply that the Senate might endorse an increase of fewer than 21,500 troops.

In an interview with Fox News on Wednesday, Bush acknowledged the opposition on Capitol Hill to his plan for a troop increase. But he remained firm.

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“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.

Warner, Levin and other lawmakers opposed to the White House plan have been working for more than a week to bridge differences between the Warner proposal and the more toughly worded Biden measure that was passed by the Foreign Relations Committee last week.

Meanwhile, other GOP lawmakers have been trying to persuade colleagues to vote against any resolution.

“We sure as heck have a responsibility to be for some plan,” said Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) who was among a group of Republicans criticizing the resolutions as unproductive earlier Wednesday. Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.), who also was in the group, later acknowledged that he had not read the new Warner proposal.

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Other conservative lawmakers have accused Democrats of undermining troop morale in their drive to pass a resolution. And the president has repeatedly said he would not be deterred by congressional opposition.

Drawing on popular dissatisfaction with the Iraqi government, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) also has been developing a resolution that would set benchmarks for Maliki to prove his commitment to reaching a political settlement among Iraq’s warring sects.

McCain, who said Wednesday that he plans to finish his resolution by today, had been an outspoken supporter of a troop increase long before the president embraced the idea in a speech Jan. 10.

McCain’s proposal has drawn little enthusiasm from Democrats, who have criticized it as a political ploy that would have little effect on the Iraqi government. The measure also does not identify any consequences should Maliki fail to meet his goals.

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“This is a very calculated effort by the White House and Republicans to muddy the waters,” said Jim Manley, a Reid spokesman. “They want to do anything to peel away the votes for a resolution.”

Warner -- whose original cosponsors included Sens. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) -- has tried to position his effort in the middle ground between the fierce partisans of both parties.

“We want to see our armed forces succeed in Iraq to help bring about greater stability to that country ... so the current elected government can take a firmer and firmer hand on the reins of sovereignty,” Warner said on the Senate floor, casting his resolution as a tool to improve the chances of victory in Iraq.

The original resolution unveiled last week included language deferring to the president’s authority as commander in chief and acknowledging the costs of failure in Iraq, a line often used by Bush and his congressional allies. It also acknowledged the need for additional forces to combat the Sunni insurgency in Al Anbar province.

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That helped draw in three more Republican backers -- Sens. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Sam Brownback of Kansas -- as well as several moderate Democrats.

In the modifications announced Wednesday, Warner, a former Navy secretary and Marine who also chaired the Armed Services Committee, seemed to be trying to entice members of his own party who want to distance themselves from recent proposals to begin withdrawing troops.

(On Wednesday, Democratic Sen. Russell D. Feingold of Wisconsin, a leading antiwar critic, introduced legislation that would prohibit funding for most military combat operations in Iraq six months after enactment of his bill.)

The changes to the Warner resolution include the addition of this clause: “Congress should not take any action that will endanger the United States military forces in the field, including the elimination or reduction of funds for troops in the field.”

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Last week, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) proposed a similar amendment to Biden’s resolution. And this week, Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) circulated the same language that Warner incorporated into his proposal.

Gregg said Wednesday that he appreciated Warner’s action but would not say whether he would support the resolution.

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noam.levey@latimes.com

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