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GOP Sits Back as Democrats Grapple With Iraq

As Senate Democrats engage in a high-stakes debate over what anti-war proposals to offer, the chamber’s Republicans are involved in a lower-key discussion about what legislative proposals, if any, to offer when the chamber takes up the subject of the Iraq War next week.

Because U.S. commander in Iraq Gen. David Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker gave an optimistic assessment of progress in Iraq and recommended a modest drawdown of troops during two days of Congressional testimony this week, Republicans feel more comfortable in their long-standing support for the war and don’t want to undercut their key argument that Democratic attempts to force troop withdrawals amount to Congressional micromanagement.

“I don’t feel the need to do anything,” Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said. He added that Democrats “are trying to find a resolution that will resonate at the ballot box, not on the ground in Iraq.”

Republican Steering Committee Chairman Jim DeMint (S.C.) agreed that offering nothing “may be the best strategy.”

“We don’t have to vote. The president doesn’t need our approval to take the recommendations” of his general, said DeMint.

Besides, said one Senate GOP leadership aide, Democrats appear to be floundering after Petraeus and Crocker’s report on what they deemed the relative successes of President Bush’s decision earlier this year to send 30,000 more troops to Iraq to help tamp down ethnic and sectarian violence, a strategy dubbed the “surge.”

“I wouldn’t put a proposal on the table that might help Democrats come together in opposition because right now the last thing they have is unity,” the aide said.

But the aide did acknowledge that Republicans also are “trying to find what their positions are.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Wednesday that he met “with all the various players who’ve had significant roles in this earlier” and that Republicans likely would have at least one proposal to rally around.

McConnell said he is looking at “a series of options” that “run the gamut.”

“We’re in active discussions on which proposals we’ll have in the queue, just as [Democrats] are,” McConnell said.

The Senate GOP leadership aide said part of the Republicans’ calculus would be based on the Democrats’ offerings.

“We’re waiting to see what they come up with,” said the aide. “Our side of the aisle is waiting for the Democrats to implode.”

Still, DeMint said one likely proposal would be a resolution expressing support for Petraeus’ recommendations “for an initial drawdown as well as future drawdowns with an unspecified timetable.”

Meanwhile, Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who has criticized the war but so far declined to support Democrats’ demands for withdrawal, said Wednesday that he is working with two groups on Iraq-related proposals. He has refused to discuss his plans until after the president’s speech to the nation tonight.

Warner’s current position on the war remains unclear. On one hand, Petraeus largely adopted Warner’s recent recommendation for the president to begin withdrawing a small number of troops this year. On the other hand, Warner appeared troubled by the large number of U.S. casualties in Iraq and the war’s affect on the overall security of the U.S. during his questioning of Petraeus in the Senate Armed Services Committee on Tuesday.

McConnell declined to say whether Warner’s proposal would be among those he seeks consent to offer next week.

Regardless, Republicans likely will feel pressure to come up with at least as many counterproposals as Democrats have. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said Wednesday he expects Democrats to offer from four to six Iraq-related amendments, and the minority party generally demands an equal number of counterproposals when debating controversial issues.

The centerpiece Democratic proposals are likely to be slightly tweaked reruns of previous attempts to force a reduction in U.S. troop levels in Iraq.

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) has outlined a proposal, which is similar to one he offered earlier this year. It would force the president to change the U.S. mission in Iraq from combat operations to fighting terrorism, protecting U.S. interests and training Iraqi security units. But instead of requiring that change to be completed by a time certain — a proposal Levin proffered in July — he would revert back to language from earlier this year that would merely give the president a goal to meet.

Asked Wednesday why, in light of Petraeus’ call for a gradual drawdown of U.S. troops, Democrats still need to pursue legislation forcing troop reductions, Levin said, “Because we don’t know what the president’s going to do.”

Levin cited media reports that have indicated Bush only will endorse Petraeus’ call to return the number of troops to its pre-surge level of 130,000 by next summer and not advocate further withdrawal past that time.

“That’s the definition of an open-ended commitment,” said Levin. He noted that Petraeus indicated Tuesday that he actually favors a continuation of the drawdown, but wants to reserve judgment on the pace of that drawdown until next year.

Along with the revised Levin amendment, Democrats are expected to rally behind the resurgence of a Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) plan to force the military to give soldiers time off equal to their time at war. The measure fell four votes short of a filibuster-proof majority in July, but Democrats say they are optimistic they can pick up several more Republican votes this time around.

Still, many Republicans view the Webb amendment as a “back door” way of forcing a drawdown of troops, since forcing the military to give soldiers time off likely would put limits on their manpower that would act as a de facto withdrawal of troops.

Meanwhile, House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio), in Iraq with a Congressional delegation, held a conference call with reporters and declared the surge a success, predicting Republicans would reap the benefits.

“If we’re continuing the kind of success we’re seeing it will inure … Republicans who stood on principle,” Boehner said in response to a question about the impact of Iraq on next year’s elections. “I feel good about it.”

Boehner said he is committed to backing the Petraeus plan to gradually draw down troops next year and predicted that his side would win the upcoming debate over continuing the war. “I think there is a majority of the Members in the House and Senate that believe that success is vital to America,” he said.

Democrats, Boehner said, have invested in failure and now can’t change their position.

“Our Democrat colleagues have invested all of their political capital all year in failure in Iraq. Now that we’re having success in Iraq, I’m not sure they have any place to go,” Boehner said. “The anti-war left will not let them go there.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.

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