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Despite Angst, Few GOP Votes for Withdrawal

Though President Bush recently has heard from quite a few high-profile GOP doubting Thomases over the Iraq War, it doesn’t appear that a rising tide of Republicans actually will emerge to vote with Democrats to draw down troops in Iraq anytime soon.

With the Senate taking up the Defense Department authorization bill during the next two weeks, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) said Monday that recent GOP statements urging Bush to change his war strategy likely would not translate into many votes for Democratic proposals to redeploy or withdraw troops from Iraq by early next year. Kyl added that most Republican Senators believe September remains the appropriate time to judge the success of the U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq. [IMGCAP(1)]

“We are quite unified as a Conference on most of the amendments and the big issues,” Kyl said. “Some in the Republican Conference might join some of the Democrat amendments, but, by and large, our approach will be consistent with the administration.”

Kyl said, “In my view the vast majority of Republicans have confidence in” the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, and remain willing to give him the time they originally promised to execute the current “surge” policy. He added that he expects other senior GOP Senators to publicly echo that view — including staunch war supporter Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) in a speech today.

“Based upon that plan, we think we owe it to Gen. Petraeus and our troops to give it time to succeed,” Kyl said.

Still, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Monday that Democrats will aggressively push amendments that would force Bush to change his tack in Iraq, including changing the focus of the mission and requiring troops to have mandated rest periods before being redeployed.

“We want there to be change. We do not want this to be a fig leaf,” Reid said at a press conference. “We want it to be real change … not some feel-good thing to give the president the opportunity to say, ‘Well, I kind of agree with what they are trying to do.’”

And Democrats are trying to ratchet up the pressure on those Republicans who have acknowledged problems with the current war policy but declined to endorse specific legislative remedies for the situation.

“For those Senate Republicans who are saying the right things on Iraq, they must put their words into action by voting with us to change course and responsibly end this war,” Reid said. “They will have many opportunities in the next couple of weeks to vote for that change.”

But GOP Sens. Dick Lugar (Ind.), Pete Domenici (N.M.), George Voinovich (Ohio) and Judd Gregg (N.H.) — all of whom have been critical of the president’s war strategy over the past two weeks — have not endorsed any of the Democratic plans to precipitate an end to the war.

“They haven’t said they’re going to vote for a troop withdrawal,” said one Senate GOP leadership aide. “They’ve just said, ‘We need a change in course.’”

Plus, the two men whom many Republican rank and file will be looking to for guidance — Senate Armed Services member John Warner (R-Va.) and Lugar, the Senate Foreign Relations ranking member — repeatedly have indicated that they want to take a more measured approach to changing course in Iraq than the Democrats have so far proposed.

Warner reiterated his position Monday, saying he would not offer any amendment related to Iraq until after receiving the administration’s Congressionally mandated report on the war this week. Bush, Warner indicated, may deliver that report in a nationally televised address before the July 15 deadline.

Warner said he already is working with Democrats and Republicans to draft alternatives to the likely proposal by Reid and Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) to force a drawdown of U.S. troops by April 2008 and refocus the remaining troops on counterterrorism, training Iraqi security forces and providing border security.

Though the Reid-Levin amendment is still being drafted, according to a Senate Democratic aide, Reid said it would be the second amendment the Senate considers.

Meanwhile, a few Senators remain hopeful that the Senate’s ongoing partisan divide over the Iraq War can be overcome through compromise.

Among them is Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), who is sponsoring a bill along with Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) to try to implement the recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The recommendations call on the White House to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq next year if certain benchmarks are met.

Alexander said Monday that he and Salazar plan to meet with the 11 other co-sponsors of the legislation today to decide whether to offer an amendment to the Defense measure that mirrors their bill.

“Our goal is not to make a speech, our goal is to develop a clear path forward in Iraq that has consensus support,” Alexander said. “That should be possible. Certainly, it’s a sad state of affairs if it weren’t.”

“This is hard, there are very strongly held views on Iraq,” Alexander added. “But we have a responsibility to do this.”

But Reid appeared skeptical of the ISG recommendations, saying the seven months between when the report was produced and now “has somewhat weakened the position of the Iraq Study Group.”

If the bipartisan group decides to press ahead with an amendment, Alexander acknowledged that certain revisions would need to be made to reflect the time that’s passed since the ISG first announced its findings. But Alexander insisted the main premise behind the report is still relevant — to urge the president to develop a plan to change the U.S. role in Iraq from a combat mission to a training mission.

Though he did not promise to allow a vote on any Alexander-Salazar amendment, Reid indicated he would consider their proposal.

“Is it going to be something that has some teeth in it?” Reid asked. “If it is, certainly, I’ll put my arms around it, and I think most Democrats will.”

Of course, Reid is starting the Iraq debate this week on a slightly more restrained note, with a proposal that Republicans see as a backdoor way of pulling troops out of Iraq.

Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-Va.) amendment — which also is supported by anti-war Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.) — would require troop rotations to adhere to a formula by which soldiers spend at least as much time at home as they’ve spent deployed to war zones before they can be redeployed. National Guard and Reserve forces would have to be given three times as much time at home as they are deployed.

The amendment is a reaction to the administration’s decision to increase the amount of time soldiers spend deployed as well as the Pentagon’s decision to send troops back for multiple tours of duty without what Webb and other critics say is sufficient time at home.

“After more than four years of ground operations in Iraq, we have reached a point where we can no longer allow the ever-changing of this administration’s operational policies to drive the way our troops are being deployed. In fact, the reverse is true,” Webb said.

Most Republicans, however, are expected to oppose the amendment as an unnecessary Congressional interference in the operation of a war. “This is not about deployment time frames for Democrats so much as it is about a continuing effort to micromanage the war from Congress,” said Ryan Loskarn, spokesman for the Senate Republican Conference.

Still, the Senate GOP leadership aide indicated that the Webb amendment could end up being Democrats’ “high-water mark” in the overall debate on the Defense authorization.

But whether Democrats will even get to that point is uncertain. Reid mused Monday whether Republicans would block votes on one or more amendments.

“I hope the Republicans aren’t filibustering — as they have most everything we’ve done — the amendments that will be offered,” Reid said. “The first challenge will be to see what they do on this very important amendment offered by Jim Webb.”

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