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Despite risks, GOP lawmakers stick with Bush on war

Only a handful of Republicans supported House and Senate proposals this week to change course in Iraq, leaving majority Democrats short of veto-proof majorities.

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On Tuesday, Sens. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan and Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island proposed an amendment to redeploy US troops by the end of April 2008. Like the House version, the Senate measure requires US forces to begin the transition out of a combat role within 120 days of enactment. Senator Hagel and two other Republicans, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Olympia Snowe of Maine, are backing the Levin-Reed amendment.

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While most Senate Republicans are still supporting the president, several are, for the first time, openly expressing doubts about whether the president's strategy can be successful. Some criticize the policy off the record, and others say they are waiting until September to comment.

"I am disappointed that, after great sacrifice by US and Iraqi troops since the announcement of the surge in January, the Iraqi government has not met critical political benchmarks in that period. The [Iraqi] government is simply not providing leadership worthy of the considerable sacrifice of our forces, and this has to change immediately," said Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia.

The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Senator Warner authored the provision in the last war-spending bill that required the interim report on Iraqi benchmarks by July 15. He and Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, are drafting their own amendment to move US forces out of a combat role in Iraq.

Meanwhile, House Democrats – in a surprise move announced before the release of the interim report this week – moved for another floor vote setting a timetable for the redeployment of US forces in Iraq.

"The American people have lost confidence in the president's strategy and handling of this war," said House majority leader Steny Hoyer. Instead of an open-ended combat role for US forces, Democrats proposed a residual force to train Iraqis, protect borders, and conduct counterinsurgency.

In a largely party-line vote, 219 Democrats and four Republicans voted in favor of the resolution; 191 Republicans and 10 Democrats opposed the move, which the White House threatens to veto. The White House strongly opposed the House resolution, proposed by Ike Skelton, a Democrat and chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, on the basis that the legislation would "substitute the judgments of politicians for the considered judgment of our military commanders." The president says he would veto the bill.

In February, 17 Republicans voted to oppose the "surge" of some 30,000 troops into Iraq, but most did not back Democrats in this week's vote, despite still wanting to see a change in US policy.

"I've consistently supported ... the Iraq Study Group's recommendations as a package, but Democratic leadership refused to let us bring it to the floor," said Phil English (R) of Pennsylvania, before Thursday's vote. "They've brought to the floor half a policy. It may unite their caucus, but it does nothing to get us out of Iraq in a responsible way. I have no trouble voting against it."

Indeed, it's not clear what impact the various legislative alternatives would have on troop levels.

"A number of papers across America reported this morning that yesterday's House vote means that most US troops would be out of Iraq by April. I ask the authors of the Levin Amendment: Is this true?" said Republican leader Mitch McConnell on the Senate floor Friday.

Senate Democrats have fielded such questions all week.

"The fact is: I don't know how many troops will be there," majority leader Harry Reid told reporters on Thursday. "I've heard anywhere from 20,000 ... to 70,000.... But it won't be 160,000 troops. We won't be surging any more."

Senators Levin and Reed said they are not mandating new force levels – just a more limited mission for US forces.

"If you have the appropriate missions, then the commanders on the ground will structure for forces appropriately," said Reed in a briefing on Tuesday.