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Iraq Debate Prompts Senate Cloakroom Clash

By The Politico's John Bresnahan

Top campaign aides weren't the only victims of the John McCain offensive on Tuesday. 

Fresh off a trip to Iraq, a visibly tired McCain lit into the "liberal left" for advocating retreat in Iraq and then went behind closed doors to brawl with a fellow GOP senator over the war. 

In what one senator called "the most serious fight that I have seen in my time in the Senate," McCain clashed with Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, over the Arizona senator's assertion that the most dangerous threat facing U.S. troops in Iraq was Al Qaeda members. 

Voinovich, who recently urged President Bush to change his war policy now, shot back that Al Qaeda "wouldn't be in Iraq" if American forces weren't there, according to people who witnessed the exchange. 

All of this was taking place as McCain was ousting the leadership of his presidential campaign team, including longtime adviser John Weaver. But one change McCain is clearly not ready to make is adjusting his staunch support of sustaining high troop levels in Iraq. 

McCain made that point abundantly clear on the Senate floor Tuesday, when he defended Bush's decision to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq as a part of a "surge" in American forces. 

With Democrats pushing several proposals to set a firm withdrawal date for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq, McCain warned that such a move would plunge Iraq into further violence and potentially spark a wider regional conflict that would drag in Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. It would also "embolden radical Islamists" to carry out terrorist attacks in Europe and the United States. 

McCain said he saw "progress" in Iraq as part of the new counterinsurgency strategy of Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander there, and added that any effort to set a withdrawal date would undermine that campaign. "Where we can be sure is, should the United States Senate seek an end to the [Petraeus] strategy as it is just beginning, we will fail for certain," McCain declared.

"This fight is about Iraq, but it is not about Iraq alone," McCain added. "It's greater than that and, more importantly, about whether America still has the political courage to fight for victory or whether we will settle for defeat and all the terrible things that accompany it." But when Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., questioned the wisdom of the Bush surge and noted that the majority of Americans had turned against the war, McCain was having none of it.

McCain, a prisoner of war during the Vietnam War, said the "liberal left" forced America to pull out of Southeast Asia due to rising casualties. McCain said that decision ultimately led to the fall of South Vietnam and the deaths of millions of Cambodians under the Pol Pot regime.

"I've seen this movie before from the liberal left in America, who share no responsibility for what happened in Cambodia when we said no while that mission was still in its early stages," McCain said of the secret U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970. Congress later blocked President Richard Nixon from further conducting military actions against Cambodia.

The McCain offensive was one of the few bright spots for a Bush White House on the defensive and, according to many Republicans, running short on time. 

Bush and senior White House officials moved on several fronts to counter eroding support for his Iraq war policy among Republicans on Capitol Hill. 

The president dispatched several top aides to meet with a group of Senate Republicans to reassure them that Bush is not caving in to demands to set a withdrawal date for pulling U.S. forces out of Iraq. Bush planned to meet on Wednesday with McCain and Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., two of his staunchest supporters on Iraq, to reiterate that message.

Vice President Cheney, in a highly unusual move for him, appealed to the Republican senators to wait until September, when Petraeus is expected to brief lawmakers on the status of the "surge" in American forces sent to Iraq, before deciding whether to back withdrawal or redeployment, according to GOP sources. 

"His point was that it wouldn't be fair to our troops who are fighting in 130-degree temperatures every day if we didn't wait until September to see if the surge is working," said one source who heard Cheney's remarks.

The public and private campaign by Bush and senior administration officials comes as Democrats in the House and Senate are pushing for a new series of votes on Iraq, including several proposals to set a firm withdrawal date of April 2008 for pulling out most, if not all, U.S. forces. 

Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Sen. Jack Reed, D-R.I., unveiled a measure on Tuesday that would mandate a "limited presence" for U.S. forces in Iraq by April 30, 2008, with Americans no longer involved in daily combat. At least two GOP senators — Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon — are expected to support the initiative, although it's unclear whether other Republicans will also back it.

Republican leaders are expected to filibuster the Reed-Levin proposal, as well as an amendment by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., that would establish new troop readiness levels, arguing that they are designed to undercut the surge and should not be adopted before the Petraeus report.

Sens. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., and Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., are pushing their own bipartisan proposal to implement the Iraq Study Group recommendations. Those recommendations included a call for a firm U.S. withdrawal date from Iraq. 

Graham criticized the Salazar-Alexander proposal as the "most dangerous" of the Iraq-related amendments being considered by the Senate, but Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky has privately expressed interest in the measure.      

McConnell aides have not said the senator will vote for the amendment. But Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah, is co-sponsoring it, which some GOP insiders have suggested means McConnell may support it.

By John Bresnahan
© 2007 The Politico &, a division of Allbritton Communications Company

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