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Bush Hears Iraq Concerns

President Bush was pressed by two senior Republican Senators Tuesday about the need to “make a better case” to the American people as to why the United States remains in Iraq. The Senators also expressed strong concern about overextending the National Guard and Reserves as the war on terrorism continues to be fought on several fronts.

Sens. John Warner (Va.) and Ted Stevens (Alaska) both addressed their concerns to Bush during a lunch meeting of Republican Senators at the White House where issues ranging from John Bolton’s troubled nomination to the president’s call for retooling Social Security were discussed over crab cakes and steak.

“They made the case that we are seeing some real fissure break with the president,” said a Republican Senator, who spoke about meeting on the condition of anonymity. “Both of them had concerns about the Guard and Reserves and how we need to basically make a better case why we are there and [that] we need to do more for the soldiers.”

Recent polls indicate waning support for continued U.S. occupation of Iraq and the Bush administration’s handling of the conflict.

Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) acknowledged the Senators’ concerns but described the president’s answer to the questions as being “extremely eloquent and a very definitive answer.”

Gregg said Bush responded by saying, “why it is important in the promotion of democracy and liberty to win in Iraq and why it is important for our national security and to make sure we win this war on terrorism.”

Still, Gregg described Warner and Stevens as experts on the subject and noted both “raised an issue that should have been raised.”

Trent Duffy, a White House spokesman, said Bush conveyed to the assembled Senators that “he is committed to the mission and seeing it through.”

“The president has been very candid with the American people and with Congress that this is going to be a challenge and that there are going to be difficult times,” Duffy said.

As for specific concerns voiced by Senators about the administration’s policy toward Iraq, Duffy said: “The president welcomes views of Senators but at the same time he gets his briefings from the commanders on the ground.”

The lunch meeting had been scheduled weeks ago but came at a crucial time for the White House, which has come under fire for its decision-making in Iraq as well as Bush’s continued insistence on revamping Social Security. The president did not waver Tuesday in his commitment to overhaul Social Security, said Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“He believes in staying the course and said essentially in spite of the fact that no Democrats have come forward [with a solution], he believes deeply in what he is trying to achieve,” McConnell said.

Bush also said he prefers for Bolton, his choice to be ambassador to the United Nations, to receive an up-or-down vote despite Democratic opposition to his nomination.

On two occasions, Republicans have failed to muster the votes to cut off debate, preventing Bolton from receiving a direct vote on his nomination.

A Republican strategist, speaking on the condition of anonymity, said the meeting was likely centered on a need to refocus its efforts on both the domestic and foreign policy agenda.

“The White House senses that there may not be the control that they are looking for,” said the high-level GOP strategist. “Maybe it’s time to regroup the team and focus on the message.”

Only four weeks remain before Congress recesses for a month-long break during August, a period during which Republicans hope to pass the energy bill as a well as a series of appropriations bills. That crowded legislative calendar could be further complicated by the expected retirement of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, which could come as early as June 27.

While Senate Republicans hold a policy luncheon weekly to discuss their legislative priorities, the White House has not hosted such an event since the late 1980s when President Ronald Reagan occupied the Oval Office.

Paul Kane contributed to this report.

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