A New Capitol Hill War Over Iraq

Congress has focused on plenty of issues this year: a boost in the minimum wage, climate change legislation, comprehensive immigration reform, to name a few. They've all been massive undertakings, and so far Democrats don't have much to show for it.

But the No. 1 priority--and most difficult--has always been Iraq. The Senate will turn its attention once again to war policy over the next two weeks when it takes up a major defense spending bill.

Democrats will use the opportunity to push for a change in Iraq strategy, while Republicans will try to shift the debate to general terrorism strategies. Democrats have been buoyed in recent weeks by the growing number of Republicans who have publicly criticized the president's Iraq policy, even ahead of an interim report due out from the administration on July 15.

Sens. Richard Lugar of Indiana, Pete Domenici of New Mexico, George Voinovich of Ohio, Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, and Judd Gregg of New Hampshire and Rep. John Doolittle of California have all spoken out recently.

Senior Republican aides say it whould come as no surprise if other lawmakers break with the president in the coming days, and Senate GOP leaders could wind up pushing for a middle-ground strategy that would call for changes by mid-September.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid plans to push several amendments to the defense bill aimed at changing the Iraq war strategy. "It will ... be our next chance to force the responsible course change in Iraq that President Bush refuses," Reid said Monday.

First up will be an amendment sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb of Virginia that requires active-duty soldiers to spend as much time at home as they did in their previous tours of duty overseas.

Other amendments possibly up for consideration include one to fully implement the Iraq Study Group's recommendations, one to order a drawdown of U.S. troops in Iraq starting within 120 days, and another to possibly overturn the original authorization of the war.

Republican Sen. John Warner, a highly respected voice on the war, had praised Lugar's comments last month but urged colleagues to hold off on amendments until they had a chance to see the president's July 15 report on Iraq.

The war now costs $12 billion per month, according to a new analysis from the nonpartisan Congressional Research Service, and the total pricetag is $450 billion, since the conflict began in 2003.

A big question for Democrats is whether the recent Republican comments translate into real votes for a withdrawal of U.S. troops. None of the Republicans speaking out recently have gone as far as to join leading Democrats in calling for an immediate withdrawal.

A key factor behind some of their comments is, of course, election worries. Domenici is embroiled in the investigation into the firing of U.S. attorneys, and Rep. John Doolittle is under investigation in the Jack Abramoff influence-peddling investigation.

Meanwhile, antiwar activists are pounding Republicans back home this summer. Among their top targets: Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and John Sununu of New Hampshire.

By Silla Brush and Paul Bedard