Senate Republicans fed up with the war but not ready to abandon Iraq are seeking shelter in legislation that calls for a new war strategy without ordering a troop withdrawal.
The legislative effort, which picked up momentum Wednesday, marks a major departure from the stiff defenses Republicans have mounted since January to shield the White House from the Democratic drive to pressure President Bush to bring the troops home.
And it has prompted a vigorous reaction from the White House, which has dispatched senior officials to Capitol Hill to implore Republicans to wait until September, when the administration plans to deliver a major assessment of the U.S. policy in Iraq.
But more GOP lawmakers are staking out safer middle ground away from the unpopular president while still opposing a withdrawal deadline many see as irresponsible.
“They are trapped,” veteran GOP strategist Frank Luntz said. “In this day and age and in this environment, you can’t just say, ‘I support the war.’ ... They are trying to find a way that is politically acceptable but still allows them to stick to their guns.”
It is a politically perilous course.
The American public overwhelmingly favors withdrawing from Iraq, not simply adjusting U.S. strategy.
And antiwar activists who have been hounding GOP lawmakers in their home states for months deride the latest Republican proposals as too little too late.
“There is no refuge for any Republican until the war is over,” said Tom Matzzie, campaign manager for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, a leading coalition against the war. “The important votes that people are going to pay attention to are the bills that end the war.”
There is small but growing Republican support for efforts to do that, as the Iraqi government continues to make little progress in meeting goals Congress outlined two months ago.
Republican Sens. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine have all said they would vote for a measure that would order a withdrawal to begin within 120 days and limit the U.S. combat mission after April 30.
On Wednesday, seven GOP lawmakers also backed a proposal in the Senate to mandate more time between deployments for soldiers who have served in Iraq and Afghanistan, a measure that would effectively force the Bush administration to reduce the number of troops in Iraq. The measure, an amendment offered by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), a Vietnam War veteran, failed to clear the 60 votes needed, 56-41.
And Republican Sen. Susan Collins of Maine joined Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) on Wednesday to sponsor a proposal to force the administration to immediately scale back the U.S. combat mission in Iraq. “I oppose the current strategy in Iraq and believe it is time to redefine our mission,” Collins said of the proposal, which would limit U.S. forces to protecting American personnel, training Iraqis, securing Iraq’s borders and conducing counter-terrorism operations.
But the rise in GOP support for measures challenging the White House still reflects only a fraction of the 49-member Senate Republican caucus. A majority succeeded Wednesday in blocking two proposals to limit troop deployments: In addition to Webb’s amendment, the Senate failed, 52-45, to reach the 60 votes needed on a proposal from Hagel, another Vietnam War veteran, to cap the time that troops could serve in Iraq.
And most Republicans, even those uncomfortable with the current policy, continue to fervently oppose setting withdrawal dates.
“It is very, very intemperate policy,” Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said on the Senate floor Wednesday, warning that it “will lead to chaos.”
Gregg is among a group of more than 40 Republican lawmakers in the House and Senate who are backing a less-restrictive measure that would urge the administration to implement the Iraq Study Group report’s recommendations.
The bipartisan report released in December made 79 recommendations for a new strategy. Some are broad, such as calls for a diplomatic initiative in the Middle East and for protecting the rights of women and minorities. Other are specific, such as installing meters on Iraqi oil pipelines.
Many recommendations have been implemented. And nothing in the proposals in Congress would compel the administration to alter its strategy.
“This I would call a respectful nudge,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), the leading Senate Republican co-sponsor of the measure. Alexander and Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), were trying to attach the measure to the defense authorization bill.
A proposal being created by Sens. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) and John W. Warner (R-Va.), two of the party’s most respected voices on national security and foreign affairs, similarly would only suggest a new mission in Iraq, Lugar said Wednesday.
“As a practical matter, I don’t think we can do anything that is going to force the administration,” said Lugar, who helped set off the latest round of Republican defections with an impassioned critique of the president’s Iraq strategy he delivered on the Senate floor 2 1/2 weeks ago.
The new GOP efforts have thus far generated a lukewarm response from Democratic leaders. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), a leading congressional war critic, said the Iraq Study Group proposal has “the teeth of a toothless tiger.”
But the new measures shift dramatically away from the gestures Republicans were making last spring. In March, GOP senators responded to a Democratic withdrawal proposal with a resolution that simply expressed opposition to cutting funding to troops in the field.
And several congressional Republicans said they hoped their legislation would have a real effect on the president.
“It would be a very loud and clear statement,” said Rep. Michael McCaul (R-Texas), a leading co-sponsor of the House Iraq Study Group legislation. “It would intensify pressure.”
John Isaacs, a war critic who heads the Council for a Livable World, also said the impact of these new Republican legislative gambits should not be underestimated.
“It’s a pretty weak amendment,” Isaacs said of the Iraq Study Group proposal. “But it’s a way station for Republicans to come this far, and on Sept. 15 to take the next step.”
Times staff writers Paul Richter and Richard Simon contributed to this report.