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GOP Moderates Nervous on Iraq

Support for Bush Starts to Slip

Cracks are starting to show in the near-monolithic Republican support for the Iraq War, with President Bush’s critics hoping that the trickle of opposition will swell into a flood later this year.

Rep. Jo Ann Emerson (R-Mo.), a moderate appropriator who had been agonizing about her vote on the Iraq War supplemental for weeks, decided last week that she could no longer toe the party line.

Emerson has been increasingly unhappy with the conduct of the war, but at the same time didn’t want to support a bill she considered to be a partisan political document. So last Wednesday night, she voted “present.”

“I cannot abide the way this war is being conducted, but neither can I lend my support to a measure that politicizes the men and women in uniform so bravely serving our country,” Emerson said in a statement.

After posting the orange vote on the board, she sat next to Rep. Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), one of two Republicans to vote for the measure, for about 10 minutes. Gilchrest said the two had been talking for weeks about the war, along with a small but growing circle of disconcerted Republicans.

“She is reading ‘Fiasco,’ which I think should be required reading for every Republican,” Gilchrest said, referring to the book by Washington Post reporter Thomas Ricks.

“It came out a year ago, but people only now are reading it,” Gilchrest said.

Gilchrest, a soft-spoken, decorated Vietnam War veteran, said that as more information gets out about the war, from books such as “Fiasco” and former CIA Director George Tenet’s new book, “At the Center of the Storm: My Years at the CIA,” which is being released today, more Republicans will want new answers beyond simply supporting Bush.

Although the party has been remarkably cohesive in opposing the Democratic drive for a timeline for withdrawal, that doesn’t mean they are willing to go along indefinitely.

Gilchrest predicted that unless the situation on the ground improves significantly in the next few months, the number of Republicans like Emerson willing to stray from the party line will grow significantly.

“They are going to start popping off,” he said. “I think by midsummer we could see that happening, breaking the logjam.”

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) said last week that he was not concerned in the short term about a party split on the war but acknowledged that results on the ground need to improve. And in a sign that Republicans also are restless to see changes, Blunt and other Republicans could support binding benchmarks on the Iraqi government tied to a “consequences package,” so long as it would not put restrictions on the military.

Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.), a leading moderate, said many Republicans are looking for a way out of Iraq, and he hopes that the Democrats will work with them after Bush likely vetoes the $124 billion war supplemental this week.

“I think a lot of us feel that the time has come for us to look for solutions to bring this war to a close,” Castle said. “And I don’t think that’s just a feeling among moderate Republicans but among Republicans in general.”

Castle said Republicans of all stripes “are very reluctant to put in dates on our Army” but said that other ideas, including Blunt’s talk of a “consequences package” for the Iraqi government, could bring the parties together.

“I think most of us feel that what the Democrats did was wrong … but that doesn’t mean we can’t work something out that moderates and even conservative Republicans can support,” Castle said.

Democrats acknowledge that they will not be able to end the war until enough Republicans ultimately decide that they can no longer support it.

House Appropriations Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) has described his strategy as forcing Republicans to vote “again and again and again” to back the war until they tell Bush they’ve had enough.

A string of Iraq votes are planned from now to October that will put Republicans on the spot. In addition to the new war supplemental, the upcoming fiscal 2008 Defense authorization and Defense appropriations bills will hit the House floor by the end of June. “This is going to play out over the year,” said Appropriations subcommittee on Defense Chairman John Murtha (D-Pa.).

Murtha has acknowledged that his proposal for a short-term supplemental of a few months to keep the pressure on the president is problematic because of the full legislative calendar and the August recess, and the idea has received a cool reception among House and Senate leaders and the White House.

A key vote to watch will come in September, when Murtha plans to bring up Bush’s $140 billion fiscal 2008 war request as a supplemental. That bill will coincide with a major update from Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus on whether the surge strategy is working.

With polls showing the public solidly favoring Democrats and their plan to withdraw troops by the end of Bush’s term, there also will be growing pressure on Republicans, Democrats believe.

“The closer it gets to the election in 2008 the more focused the Republican Senators will be on this issue,” said Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.). “If it has not been resolved on the ground, they will have to decide whether or not they want to take this, the president’s position, as their party position into the next election. And I think they’ll be more open to a new direction in Iraq.”

Republicans and Bush have sought to portray the Democratic bill as a “surrender” date, but party apostates such as Gilchrest and fellow war opponent Rep. Walter Jones Jr. (R-N.C.) say the party’s leaders have been focused too much on sloganeering while problems with the conduct of the war have been allowed to fester.

“To simply say this is about winning is a disservice to the public,” Gilchrest said. “We should be about drilling down to the information.”

Gilchrest noted that fellow Republicans have started stepping out more and more, including Rep. David Hobson (R-Ohio), a senior appropriator who traveled to Syria with Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) even as the White House and Republican leaders ripped her for meeting with the head of a state sponsor of terrorism.

Gilchrest’s stand has resulted in varied opinions back home, he said.

“Some come up to me and say, ‘I loathe your vote,’” Gilchrest said. Others quietly thank him. Many others are just curious and want to know why he’s stepping out from his party and the president. He said he takes the critics in stride.

“It’s nothing compared to the importance of getting this issue right,” he said.

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