In Senate, Allies of Bush Work to Halt Iraq Vote
WASHINGTON, Jan. 30 — The Bush administration’s allies in the Senate began a major effort on Tuesday to prevent a potentially embarrassing rejection of the president’s plan to push 20,000 more troops into Iraq.
With the Senate expected to reach votes on possible resolutions sometime next week, the signs of the new campaign seeped out after a weekly closed-door lunch in which Republican senators engaged in what participants described as a heated debate over how to approach the issue.
The new effort by President Bush’s allies, including Senators John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, is aimed at blocking two nonbinding resolutions directly critical of the White House that had appeared to be gaining broad support among Democrats and even some Republicans.
Republicans skeptical of the troop buildup said some of their colleagues had begun to suggest that opponents of the White House plan ran the risk of undermining Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new military commander in Iraq, as well as Mr. Bush.
“There is a lot of pressure on people who could be with us not to be with us,” said Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, the co-author of one resolution along with Senators John W. Warner, Republican of Virginia, and Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska.
As an alternative to that measure and another broadly backed by Democrats, Mr. McCain and Mr. Graham, along with Senator Joseph I. Lieberman, the independent Democrat from Connecticut, are trying to enlist support for a resolution that would set benchmarks for the Iraqi government and describe the troop increase as a final chance for the United States to restore security in Baghdad.
The senators have been joined in their effort by the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, Senator John Cornyn of Texas and Senator David Vitter of Louisiana.
The debate over Iraq also resounded elsewhere on Capitol Hill, as senators attending the confirmation hearing for Adm. William J. Fallon, nominated to command American forces in the Middle East, heard his blunt assessment of the path ahead. He said “time is running out” for positive action by the government of Nuri Kamal al-Maliki to show it can quell sectarian violence.
At another Senate hearing, the leaders of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that reported to Mr. Bush and Congress last month, disputed the White House’s contention that most of their recommendations had been incorporated into Mr. Bush’s troop increase plan.
“The diplomatic effort has not been full enough,” said Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairman of the study group with James A. Baker III. In testimony before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Mr. Hamilton described the initiatives begun by the administration in the Middle East as modest and slow, and added, “We don’t have the time to wait.”
On the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats began laying the constitutional groundwork for an effort to block the president’s plan to send more troops to Iraq and place new limits on the conduct of the war there, perhaps forcing a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
In advance of a possible Senate vote on the resolutions, Republican senators now appear widely divided over how to proceed. In trying to head off the resolution supported by Senators Warner and Collins, allies of the White House appear to be trying to muster at least the 41 votes they would need to prevent a vote on the measure under Senate rules. Mr. McCain is sponsoring the competing resolution that would establish benchmarks for the Iraqi government. He said the proposal also could be fashioned to give Congress more oversight.
Republicans were viewing Mr. McCain’s plan as a way to deter Republicans from joining in the resolutions more critical of Mr. Bush, and many Republicans said that would be preferable to one criticizing the troop buildup outright. Senators also said they were beginning to realize that the vote, while nonbinding, would be an important statement on Congressional sentiment regarding the war.
“We all know the world is watching,” said Senator Saxby Chambliss, Republican of Georgia.
The more sharply worded of the two measures critical of the White House is one approved last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and backed by the Democratic Senators Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware and Carl Levin of Michigan, as well as Senator Chuck Hagel, the Nebraska Republican. The second of the two measures is one backed by Senator Warner.
As those debates flared mostly in private, the confirmation hearing for Admiral Fallon as the new head of the military’s Central Command became a proxy debate not only over the president’s new strategy but also for the competing resolutions supported by senators of both parties.
But Admiral Fallon, currently in charge of American forces across Asia and the Pacific, declined to answer directly politically fraught questions about whether certain proposed resolutions would harm the military effort in Iraq or undermine the troops’ morale.
The admiral, who if confirmed as expected would be the first Navy officer to head the Central Command, said that he would always offer unvarnished military advice, but that he would avoid commenting on partisan political issues.
In his testimony, Admiral Fallon told members of the Senate Armed Services Committee that the United States might have erred in its assessments of how effectively the new Iraqi government could manage the nation’s affairs.
“Maybe we ought to redefine the goals here a bit and do something that’s more realistic in terms of getting some progress and then maybe take on the other things later,” Admiral Fallon said, adding, “What we’ve been doing is not working and we have got to be doing, it seems to me, something different.”
“Time is running out,” he concluded.
Senator Levin submitted a letter he co-authored with Senator McCain demanding that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice make public the administration’s requirements for actions to be taken by the government in Baghdad to earn continued American support.
Late Tuesday, Senator Levin’s office released a reply from Ms. Rice that stated assurances that the Bush administration supports Mr. Maliki but also listed deadlines already missed by his government. Among them were laws to guarantee an equitable distribution of the country’s oil wealth, to establish provincial elections and to reintegrate disenfranchised Sunnis into Iraqi political life.
In the Senate Judiciary Committee, Senator Arlen Specter, the Pennsylvania Republican who led the panel for the last two years, joined Democrats who asserted that Mr. Bush cannot simply ignore Congressional opposition to his plan to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.
“I would respectfully suggest to the president that he is not the sole decider,” Mr. Specter said. “The decider is a joint and shared responsibility.”
Senator Russell Feingold, Democrat who acted as chairman for the hearing, said he would soon introduce a resolution that would go much further. It would end all financing for the deployment of American military forces in Iraq after six months, other than a limited number working on counterterrorism operations or training the Iraqi Army and police force. In effect, it would call for all other American forces to be withdrawn by the six-month deadline.