WASHINGTON — As the Senate launches a historic debate Monday over whether to oppose President Bush's new strategy for the Iraq war, the outcome may well turn on a few votes on both sides of the aisle.
Though not binding on the president, a vote in favor of a resolution to reject his plan to add 21,500 US forces in Iraq would be Congress's first against the war since it authorized the use of force in 2002.
Some backers of a compromise resolution worked out by Sens. John Warner (R) of Virginia and Carl Levin (D) of Michigan say it would be a first step toward pushing for more forceful moves, such as curbing war funds or setting a timetable for troop withdrawal. Opponents, including most Republican senators, say it would send a message of disunity to US friends and foes abroad and undermine prospects for success.
Both sides are weighing the risks of action – or inaction.
It may seem like an easy decision for Democrats, because polls show both the war and the president to be unpopular, says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "But if they succeed in hastening the withdrawal, and disaster results, they could wind up with some of the blame, so that's tempering the move to put some teeth in the resolution," he says. "If they put teeth in the resolution, they may be the ones to get bitten."
The risks for Republicans are different but no less sharp. "Association with an unpopular war is hurtful, as they saw in 2006 election," notes Mr. Pitney. "But if they're seen as abandoning President Bush, they could alienate a lot of primary voters and look like flip-floppers. For Republicans, it could become a character issue."
The Warner-Levin resolution calls for shifting responsibility to the Iraq government for dealing with sectarian conflict, but also specifies that nothing in the resolution should not be interpreted as "precipitating any immediate reduction in, or withdrawal of, the present level of forces." About 140,000 American troops were serving in Iraq before Mr. Bush laid out his plan on Jan. 10 to send 21,500 more.
The measure also rules out "the elimination or reduction of funds" because it could "endanger United States military forces in the field."
On the eve of debate, at least 12 Republicans were backing the Warner-Levin measure or were inclined to support it.
For Democrats, there is pressure to produce a bipartisan vote against the president's plan. But their own Sens. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin and Christopher Dodd of Connecticut say they will oppose the resolution because it isn't strong enough.
A competing resolution – sponsored by Sens. John McCain (R) of Arizona, Joseph Lieberman (I) of Connecticut, and Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina – calls on Congress to provide "the full support necessary" to carry out the US mission in Iraq, including 11 benchmarks it says the Iraqis must meet.
"This debate is just beginning, and we intend to make a strong case that we believe that this mission ... can succeed," said Senator McCain at a briefing last week.
Senator Lieberman, who during his reelection campaign last year lost the Democratic primary largely over his support of the Iraq war, says a nonbinding resolution against the surge "will have no effect on what is happening on the ground, will discourage our troops and encourage those they are fighting."
Despite disagreement over the endgame in Iraq, consensus is growing on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue regarding benchmarks the Iraqi government should be required to meet. These include a commitment to send additional Iraqi security forces to Baghdad and a fair distribution of government resources, including oil revenues, regardless of sect or ethnicity.
"They've got to pass an oil law. They've got to amend their constitution so that all segments of that society feel that the government is for them," Bush said Saturday at an issues conference in Williamsburg, Va., to applause from House Democrats in attendance.
Back on Capitol Hill, more than a dozen Republican senators have expressed doubts about Bush's plan to add to forces in Iraq. But GOP leaders said Friday that all 49 Republican senators will block the move to a vote on the Warner-Levin resolution – including Senator Warner – unless Democrats allow votes on three other resolutions, including one that opposes a cap on troop levels and curbs on war funding.
In the run-up to Monday's debate, lawmakers have two new pieces of information. One concerns the cost of the war. Monday, Bush is expected to ask Congress to approve $245 billion for war costs through fiscal year 2008 (October 2007 through September 2008), in addition to the $70 billion already approved for the current fiscal year – higher than many senators had expected.
The other is a long-awaited report by US intelligence agencies, which concludes that prospects for success in Iraq are "daunting" even if new moves do stem violence. Given the "current winner-take-all attitude and sectarian animosities infecting the political scene," Iraqis will be "hard pressed to achieve sustained political reconciliation" in the next 12 to 18 months, according to unclassified conclusions of the National Intelligence Estimate released Friday.
Moreover, the Congressional Budget Office predicts that the cost of putting the additional troops in Iraq will be greater than the White House estimate of $6 billion. A CBO report released Thursday put the cost at between $9 billion and $13 billion for a four-month deployment, and between $20 billion and $27 billion for a 12-month deployment. A two-year deployment would cost about $49 billion, the report said.