Republican leaders on Tuesday pounced on a newly released National Intelligence Estimate to argue that the increasingly powerful and ominous Al Qaeda presence justifies current troop levels in Iraq at least until September. Democrats said the NIE proved nothing more than that the Iraq war has helped make Al Qaeda more dangerous.
With Democrats pressing for a straight up-or-down vote on a plan to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by next spring, Republicans are increasingly playing the "Al Qaeda card" to delay, at least for two more months, any major Senate vote on changing war policy.
This strategy was on full display Tuesday. Sen. Kit Bond (R-Mo.), ranking member of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said the newly declassified National Intelligence Estimate showed that Al Qaeda is "present in Iraq," and the United States must "fight them in Iraq."
At the same time, Senate Republicans pushed through a nonbinding resolution stating that "precipitous withdrawal" from Iraq would "create a safe haven for Islamic radicals, including Al Qaeda and Hezbollah, who are determined to attack the United States and (U.S.) allies." The vote was 94-3.
White House press secretary Tony Snow denied that the release of the declassified portions of the intelligence report was timed to coincide with the Senate's debate on a proposal by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to pull most U.S. troops out of Iraq by April 30, but it came as part of a broader effort to stem further GOP erosion on Iraq.
Bush met privately with a group of leading conservative columnists last week, leading to several high-profile articles backing up his policy in Iraq that were widely circulated by Republicans on Capitol Hill. These helped buttress Bush's demand that Congress wait until mid-September, when Army Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, is scheduled to report back to lawmakers on the progress of the "surge" of 30,000 additional combat troops sent to Baghdad and surrounding regions.
"President Bush is absolutely right,'' William Kristol declared in his Weekly Standard column titled "Keep on Surgin.'"
"If Bush can hang tough and Gen. Petraeus can keep on surging, the defeatists will fail,'' Kristol wrote. "And the United States will have a good chance to succeed in Iraq."
At least for the moment, the public relations and lobbying blitz by the White House has apparently succeeded, as even GOP supporters of the Levin-Reed amendment admit that there are not likely to be any more Republicans signing onto that proposal at this time, despite growing unhappiness within GOP ranks over the course of the war.
"I'd ballpark it at a dozen," Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said when asked how many Republicans are ready to break with the president over Iraq but have not done so publicly. Smith is one of three Republicans who have signed on as co-sponsors of the Levin-Reed plan, which is scheduled to come up for a vote Wednesday after a rare all-night session of the Senate.
Smith said he didn't "want to name names" but said this was "what I hear in the (Republican) cloakroom."
Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) said the country is "at a crossroads between hope and reality" on Iraq, but she did not appear confident that there would be any additional Republican support for the Levin-Reed bill, leaving it well short of the 60 votes needed to thwart a GOP filibuster.
"We all know that in September this issue is going to come to a head," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) said on the Senate floor
McCain also slammed Democrats who asserted that the surge is a failure, and he took a veiled shot at Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (Nev.), who has already declared the "war is lost."
"If we lost the war, does that mean that someone else has won?" McCain asked. "Has Al Qaeda won?"
Reid and the Democrats railed against their GOP counterparts for filibustering the Levin-Reed amendment, which has been offered to the pending defense authorization bill. With Democrats unlikely to end the Republican filibuster, Reid will be forced to take up other proposals -- including Iraq-related amendments by Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), or Sens. John Warner (R-Va.) and Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) -- though none of those sets a timetable for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq, leaving the Petraeus report in September as the next major political milestone.
"Yet Senate Republicans have chosen to prevent honest debate and action on legislation to provide an Iraq strategy that would allow us to responsibly redeploy our troops and refocus our attention on the very real threat posed by (Al Qaeda)," Reid wrote to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), who is spearheading the GOP filibuster. "This partisan obstruction, I fear, will make us less, not more, secure. And I urge you to reconsider your course."
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) said waiting until September for a change in U.S. policy in Iraq "is likely to cost us 200 lives. It is likely to cost us 2,000 more injured soldiers. It is likely to cost us $24 billion of America's treasure."
Democrats also vehemently protested that the new intelligence report in any way backed Republican statements that the United States must stay in Iraq in order to counter Al Qaeda, or Al Qaeda in Iraq, an affiliated organization.
"Nothing has changed," said Sen. John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.), chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee. "Al Qaeda is getting stronger. … It was not an optimistic assessment."