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Senate GOP Tries to Shift Message

Senate Republican leaders struggled Tuesday to shift their focus away from complaints about parliamentary procedure and onto which party is best supporting the troops as Republicans and Democrats continued their high-stakes game of political chicken over the Iraq War.

Following their successful filibuster Monday of a resolution opposing President Bush’s plan to increase troop levels in Iraq, Republicans found themselves on the losing end of the public relations fight as they woke up to headlines across the country pinning the blame squarely on them.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on the floor. It’s all about media,” one senior GOP aide said Tuesday, warning that the focus on complaints about how Democrats are conducting the debate mandated by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Minority Whip Trent Lott (R-Miss.) put the GOP on treacherous ground. “We really need to get away from this process stuff,” this aide complained, warning that McConnell and Lott could begin to suffer significant defections by rank-and-file members.

Privately, Republican leadership sources acknowledged they failed to effectively spin the Iraq debate and suffered at the hands of this week’s headlines. GOP Senators were scrambling Monday night into Tuesday to troubleshoot their message, which many feared had become mired in procedural detail and esoteric arguments over fairness.

“It wasn’t good,” acknowledged one Republican Senate staffer.

On Tuesday, several leading GOP Senators were trying to refocus the message to one of supporting the troops. They also argued that the flurry of nonbinding resolutions sends confusing messages to the enemy and to the troops in harm’s way.

The Senate Republican Conference circulated talking points at their regular Tuesday policy luncheon asking GOP Senators to argue that the Senate should vote on Sen. Judd Gregg’s (R-N.H.) resolution expressing support for troops and avoid complaints about process.

“We can win if we focus on Gregg,” one GOP source said, arguing that the tried-and-true tactic of using patriotism against Democrats could splinter Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (Nev.) Democratic Caucus.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), the GOP Conference vice chairman, said despite a day of bad press, Republicans are not going “to get excited about headlines and a handful of papers that got it wrong.” Cornyn argued that Republicans want to debate the troop surge, and will continue to debate it even as Reid and McConnell engage in a stare-down over how to proceed.

“[Democrats] may enjoy today’s headlines and a handful of papers that got it wrong, but they’re not going to be able to enjoy that forever,” Cornyn said.

Despite those warnings, many Republicans appeared to have difficulty avoiding the process complaints — including McConnell himself. For instance, he and Reid engaged in a lengthy back-and-forth on the chamber floor Tuesday afternoon in which McConnell repeatedly complained that Reid was attempting to dictate to Republicans what resolution they were allowed to bring up even after he had narrowed the Republican list of demands from five to ultimately one — Gregg’s troop-support resolution.

Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) also slipped back into arguments over process. While speaking with reporters following the GOP’s closed-door luncheon, Stevens argued Republicans are “trying to protect the rights of the minority” and lashed out at Democrats for limiting the number of amendments or proposals Republicans can bring. “The amount of amendments we’re going to have is really the issue here,” he said.

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