Bush shrugs at GOP Iraq defections

Times Staff Writer

As the Senate began a new debate Monday on the war in Iraq, the White House brushed off calls from a growing chorus of Republican lawmakers to change course in the conflict.

“The president wants to withdraw troops based on the facts on the ground, not on the matter of politics,” White House Press Secretary Tony Snow told reporters. Later, he added: “There is no intensifying discussion about reducing troops.”

Snow also tried to minimize the differences between President Bush and his GOP critics on Capitol Hill by explaining that the president also wanted to bring home the troops.


In the last two weeks, several senior Senate Republicans -- including a few loyal supporters of Bush’s war strategy -- have publicly declared the troop increase a failure and urged him to begin planning a withdrawal.

The GOP defections have increased pressure on the White House, just as the Bush administration is completing a report on the situation in Iraq that it must send lawmakers before Monday. Snow indicated the report would acknowledge that the Iraqis had not met all the goals identified by Congress this spring.

The defections have further emboldened Senate Democrats trying to force a troop withdrawal by spring. They plan a series of votes over the next two weeks to induce Republicans to join their campaign.

On Monday, the Senate began considering the first such proposal -- an amendment to the $649-billion defense authorization bill, requiring the military to guarantee that troops returning from Iraq get adequate rest before redeployment.

“We are now in the fifth year of ground combat operations in Iraq,” said Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam War veteran and former Navy secretary, who is sponsoring the measure.

He said: “This deck of cards is crashing down, and it’s landing heavily on the heads of the soldiers and the Marines who have been deployed again and again while the rest of the country sits back and debates Iraq as an intellectual or emotional exercise.”

A similar gambit by House Democrats failed this year amid warnings from the administration and many GOP lawmakers that such requirements would constrain the military.

But as casualties mount and long deployments take a toll on communities nationwide, Democrats hope to attract more Republican support.

Democratic leaders are planning other amendments to enact withdrawal timelines much like those that proved so contentious last spring when a war-funding bill was debated.

In May, Bush vetoed a bill requiring that withdrawal begin.

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) are putting together a proposal to mandate that a withdrawal begin within 120 days of enactment and be completed by March 31.

Like previous Democratic proposals, theirs would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq for limited missions, including protecting U.S. personnel, training Iraqi forces and going after terrorist groups.

Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel and Oregon’s Gordon H. Smith are the only GOP senators who have voted for a timeline. But on Monday, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), a longtime critic of the president’s Iraq strategy, said she was seriously considering voting for one.

Democrats may also hold a vote on a proposal by Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) to revoke the war authorization passed by Congress in 2002.

And Democrats might introduce amendments to close the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, and to grant the terrorism suspects there the right to challenge their incarceration.

Most Senate Republicans, including those who have recently called on the president to change course in Iraq, have said they will not support a withdrawal timeline, and instead back a bipartisan proposal to enact the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group.

That bipartisan commission’s report, released in December, offered 79 policy prescriptions -- including more regional diplomacy and increased pressure on the Iraqi government -- to allow a troop withdrawal early next year. The study group’s report has not become the administration blueprint that its authors had hoped it would.

“It would get us out of the combat business and into the support business,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), one of the proposal’s authors, who last week publicly called on the president to plan a withdrawal.

But because the proposal has no withdrawal deadline, it has attracted only lukewarm support from most Democrats. They say a deadline is the only way to push the Iraqi government to make more progress.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that he was still considering whether to allow a vote on the proposal.