Distressed by the violence in Iraq and worried about tying their political fate to an unpopular president, some Republicans on Capitol Hill are beginning to move away from the White House to stake out a more critical position on the U.S. role in the war.
These lawmakers are advocating proposals that would tie the U.S. commitment in the war to the Iraqi government’s ability to demonstrate that it is working to quell the sectarian conflict.
As Democrats start work on a new war spending bill to replace the one President Bush vetoed, at least three Republican senators who opposed the Democratic withdrawal plan said Wednesday that the new bill should include so-called benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet.
“Obviously, the president would prefer a straight funding bill with no benchmarks, no conditions, no reports,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). “Many of us, on both sides of the aisle, don’t see that as viable.”
Collins, who opposed Bush’s troop buildup but balked at the Democratic withdrawal plan, is working on legislation that would require Iraqis to meet certain goals to receive U.S. reconstruction aid.
Most Republicans are expected to stick with the White House until September, when the U.S. military commander in Iraq plans to deliver a major assessment of the president’s war strategy. Bush in January ordered the deployment of an additional 21,500 troops to try to stabilize Iraq.
But the call for establishing benchmarks with concrete consequences challenges the position of the president and GOP leaders, much as the Democrats did when they tried to link the same measurements with a troop withdrawal.
And it comes as some Republicans are calling on colleagues to take a more independent position on the war after years of deferring to the White House.
“We have to be engaged developing our own proposals and not just going along with what the executive branch is doing,” said Rep. Charles Boustany Jr., a Louisiana Republican who voted against the Democratic plan to force Bush to start withdrawing troops.
Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican who has supported Bush’s war strategy even as the public has turned against it, said, “The marketplace has become ripe for a new idea.”
GOP leaders in the House and Senate continue to criticize the Democratic drive to force an end to the 4-year-old war. Senior Republicans have not embraced any proposals that would put them at odds with the White House, which has consistently declined to articulate any consequences for the Iraqis if they failed to meet the benchmarks.
On Wednesday, House Minority Leader John A. Boehner (R-Ohio) refused to discuss what a tougher benchmark plan would look like, shifting the focus instead to Democrats.
“They have a responsibility to bring forward a clean bill that supports our troops and supports our effort in Iraq,” Boehner said, flanked by his senior legislative lieutenants.
Democratic leaders are trying to decide how they will respond to Bush’s veto of their $124-billion war spending bill.
The bill mandated that the president begin to withdraw U.S. troops by July 1, unless the Iraqi government made substantial progress on a number of benchmarks, such as disarming sectarian militias. Even if Iraq met them, the bill ordered a withdrawal to start Oct. 1.
The measure officially died Wednesday when Democrats in the House voted 222 to 203 to override the president’s veto, failing to muster the necessary two-thirds majority.
Democratic leaders have said they plan to drop the withdrawal timelines from the next spending bill, which they hope to send to Bush by the end of the month.
They have indicated, however, that they want to include benchmarks for the Iraqi government to keep pressure on its leaders to take political steps to match the U.S. military effort.
Democrats emphasize that the benchmarks must be accompanied by dates and clear consequences should the Iraqi government fail.
But House Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (D-Md.) said the next bill might only require that military commanders in Iraq file more reports if the benchmarks are not met.
Some Republicans, including Collins, are already talking about tougher standards.
Among the most influential is Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), a former chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee who led a bipartisan effort to oppose the troop buildup. He said he was working on a compromise measure that would include some benchmarks.
“I’m optimistic that something can be worked out ... that we can achieve a document that will get 70 votes,” Warner said, citing a Senate vote tally that would make the war spending bill veto-proof.
Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine) has introduced legislation that would require the U.S. military commander in Iraq to begin planning a withdrawal unless the Iraqi government met the benchmarks.
Collins said she was having discussions with many of her colleagues.
Sen. Ben Nelson, a conservative Democrat from Nebraska who has often worked with Republicans on legislation related to Iraq and other matters, said there had been a marked increase in Republican overtures recently.
“I’ve gotten a lot of calls,” he said.
The Republican interest in charting an independent course from Bush is not unprecedented.
In January, seven Republicans got behind a nonbinding resolution criticizing the president’s plan to deploy more troops in Iraq before the legislative effort collapsed amid partisan battling.
Today, Republican interest in a new course is being stoked by the slow pace of progress in Iraq, four months after Bush announced his “surge.”
“Not only does this issue have to be addressed in a bipartisan manner to effect change in Iraq, it’s also the right thing to do,” Snowe said.
The congressional demands for action got a boost from Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who said Wednesday that he thought the debate over timelines was useful because it illustrated to Iraqi leaders that Americans were growing impatient.
Republicans acknowledge privately that impatience with the White House -- whose Iraq policies helped sweep Democrats into the majority on Capitol Hill last year -- is driving the search for an independent position.
“They feel like they have taken a couple hits for this president. They are not in the mood to take another,” said one Republican aide, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of party tensions. “Folks have just about given as much blood as they can give.”
But many Republicans continue to think any benchmark plan with dates and consequences would be counterproductive for the Iraqi government.
“Benchmarks focus their attention on what they need to do. It informs the public here’s what we expect,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.). “But when you get timelines, deadlines and denying funding, you’re basically empowering the enemy to make sure you fail.”
Democrats and Republicans talked about a compromise after meeting with Bush at the White House on Wednesday, but they have moved little from the positions they staked out months ago.
“I think we’re still in a fairly toxic political environment,” said Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.), who opposed the president’s troop buildup but voted against the Democratic withdrawal plan. “And I think it will continue like this for a while. That’s the reality.”
Times staff writers Maura Reynolds and Peter Spiegel contributed to this report.
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The war spending bill that President Bush vetoed contained benchmarks that congressional Democrats wanted the Iraqi government to meet. The benchmarks, which now are gaining support among Republicans, would require the Iraqi government to:
* Give U.S. and Iraqi security forces the authority to pursue all extremists, including Sunni insurgents and Shiite militias.
* Move Iraqi forces into Baghdad and shield them from political interference.
* Step up efforts to build ethnically balanced forces throughout Iraq.
* Ensure that Iraq’s political authorities are not undermining or making false accusations against members of the Iraqi forces.
* End militia control of local security.
* Create a strong militia disarmament program.
* Ensure fair and just enforcement of laws.
* Establish political, media, economic and service committees to support the troop buildup in Baghdad.
* Eradicate safe havens for insurgents and terrorists.
* Make progress on reconciliation initiatives, including enactment of a law to distribute oil profits fairly among Iraq’s sectarian communities.
* Adopt laws to allow provincial and local elections.
* Reform laws governing the de-Baathification process, the amendment of the constitution and allocation of Iraqi revenue for reconstruction projects.
* Reduce the level of sectarian violence in Iraq.
* Protect the rights of minority parties in the Iraqi parliament.
Source: H.R. 1591, Global War On Terror Supplemental Appropriations