GOP Finds Solid Ground On Iraq War

U.S. Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham visit the popular Shurja market in Baghdad, Iraq, April 1, 2007. AP

This story was written by John Bresnahan and Martin Kady II.


For the first time since losing control of Congress in 2006, Republicans are back on offense in the political struggle over the Iraq war, as Democratic plans to force a change in strategy by President Bush through peeling away his GOP support continue to yield few results.

Republicans are increasingly buoyed by perceived divisions among Democrats, seeming signs of progress on the ground in Iraq and the fact that the first brigade of U.S. troops started coming home Tuesday.

Democrats insist they are still united on ending the war. Public opinion polls also overwhelmingly favor Democrats who back a quick end to the conflict, and on Tuesday, Democratic leaders unveiled a report showing that the Iraq campaign will cost far more - as much as $3.5 trillion - if the United States stays engaged in Iraq for another decade.

But after a summer of bitter partisan battles over the war, Democrats are going into an Iraq funding battle this week with little hope of dividing Bush and Republicans on Capitol Hill, and they privately seem resigned that the White House will continue to have its way on funding the long-running conflict.

The House is set to debate an Iraq funding bill that liberals believe isn't strong enough, Republicans refuse to embrace and the president plans to veto.

The Senate, meanwhile, is expected to take up the bill Thursday. But with Republicans insisting on a 60-vote, filibuster-proof threshold and Democrats saying they won't send a bill to Bush without a troop withdrawal timetable, the measure is doomed.

There is a pervasive sense among Republicans, and even some Democrats, that the war debate has been reframed by signs of success and that both sides need to adapt to facts on the ground.

"I think momentum has been lost for the argument that the surge has failed," said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), one of Bush's strongest supporters in Congress. "The momentum is to allow the surge to continue. I don't see anyone defecting from our side. If there's any change in votes, it will be on their side."

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), a moderate Democrat who supports a change in mission but not a mandatory troop withdrawal, said, "People understand that there has been a military success in Iraq. ... There's an expectation that more of that will happen."

Nelson wants to wait until Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, returns to Capitol Hill in the spring to decide what to do about troop levels, and he's not a supporter of any plan to provide "bridge funding."

Democratic leaders remain confident - at least in public - of the party's direction on Iraq policy. No Democrat who has previously supported a troop withdrawal timetable has switched sides and voted against such a policy, and Democrats continue to focus on the overall cost of the war, as well as the number of Americans killed, which is approaching 4,000.

So far, the Democrats' message continues to be that the Bush "surge" has been somewhat successful in reducing violence, but political reconciliation within Iraq remains negligible, undermining the very reason why the president sent additional American forces to Iraq in the first place.

Democrats also refuse to give Bush any credit for the improved security situation in Iraq, and they argue that since the situation seems more stable there, U.S. troops should be brought home. Combined with the still-growing costs of the war, Democrats believe this message is still politically effective.

Democrats will continue to apply pressure on their GOP counterparts, gambling that forcing continued votes on proposals to force a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq will force moderate Republicans to question their continued support for Bush.

"You can't really measure that unless you have something on the floor," said Sen. Jack Reed D-R.I.), one of the leading Senate Democrats on Iraq.

However, it has been clear over the past week that there are divisions among Democrats over the $50 billion "bridge" fund. Last week, House leaders pulled their Iraq measure because Democrats needed more time to explain the measure to their caucus. In the Senate this week, Democrats will vote on a "goal" of troop withdrawal, but if it does not gain 60 votes, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) says the president won't get his money.

That makes some Democrats uncomfortable, since they want to fund the troops even while Congress disagrees over how to end the war.

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