Is a bipartisan war policy possible?

More lawmakers urge Congress to forcefully steer US actions in Iraq. But a united front is hard to achieve in a campaign season.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

When President Bush addresses the nation Thursday night, he's expected to endorse some version of what's come to be known on Capitol Hill as the Petraeus Report.

That strategy, set out by Gen. David Petraeus and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker in two days of hearings this week, recommends a drawdown of combat troops to pre-"surge" levels by mid-July 2008, beginning this year.

But a growing number of lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, are chafing both at the recommendation and at its source.

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Generals, no matter how respected, shouldn't be setting US policy, they say: Congress should, and it should start doing so in a bipartisan way rather than continuing to stage "show" votes designed to embarrass the other side, as has been congressional custom since the war's onset.

"By not having a bipartisan approach, Congress has defaulted and let the whole tone of this debate be set by a military man's report," says Rep. Joe Sestak (D) of Pennsylvania, a former three-star admiral and defense adviser in the Clinton administration. "Regardless of one's position on the war, it's profoundly dangerous to have the military make decisions on war and peace, and to some extent, that's what we've done."

While response to the president's speech Thursday night is likely to be along partisan lines, the test of whether Congress can find a bipartisan voice on the war comes next week, when the Senate takes up the defense authorization bill for fiscal year 2008.

Over two days of testimony, lawmakers on both sides of the aisle expressed frustration with the US strategy in Iraq and called for a more active congressional role. "At this stage of the conflict, with our military strained by Iraq deployments, our global advantages being diminished by the weight of our burden in Iraq, it is not enough for the administration to counsel patience until the next milestone or the next report," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, in hearings on the status of the war held by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee on Tuesday. "We need to see a strategy for how our troops and other resources in Iraq might be employed to fundamentally change the equation.".

Congress needs to ask, and get answers, to tough questions, said Senator Lugar and others in some 10 hours of testimony Tuesday. These include how the US will leverage new relationships with Sunni forces in Iraq into a rough balance of power with the Shiites. How will we maintain any enthusiasm among Shiite leaders for our goals if they perceive we are strengthening Sunni rivals? Lugar asked.

Asked by Sen. Russ Feingold (D) of Wisconsin how the US commitments in Iraq affected the larger global fight against terrorism, General Petraeus said that he was "focused on his area of responsibility," the mission in Iraq.

In the run-up to next week's debate on the defense authorization bill, lawmakers in both parties are scrambling for a new center.

Sens. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan and Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island say they are recasting a measure that originally called for beginning the withdrawal of US forces 120 days after the bill passes, to end by April 30, 2008. In July, the amendment fell eight votes short of overcoming a Republican filibuster.

"We need to put a little more elbow room into it to get 60 votes," says Sen. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon, who was one of four Republicans to back the Levin-Reed amendment last July.

Instead of setting a fixed endpoint for US deployment in Iraq, he proposes setting a goal. "We need to make sure there is sufficient stability that Iraq doesn't become a failed state or a client state for Iran and also to make sure it does not lead to a regional war," Senator Smith adds.

On the House side, Reps. Neil Abercrombie (D) of Hawaii, John Tanner (D) of Tennessee, and Phil English (R) of Pennsylvania are pushing to get a vote on their measure to require the president to report to Congress on redeployment planning within 60 days – and every 90 days thereafter. The move, sponsors say, gives Congress a voice in war strategy and is the only prospect for a strong, bipartisan vote. The measured passed out of the House Armed Services committee on a 55-to-2 vote.

So far, House Democratic leaders have not been willing to put the measure to a floor vote, because it would showcase rifts in party ranks. The move is strongly opposed by the party's Out-of-Iraq caucus, because it does not include a fixed timetable for withdrawal.

"It's a big step toward putting Congress back in the oversight role," says Representative Abercrombie. "The alternative is to continue passing bills that have troop withdrawal deadlines in them that will pass in the House, but not the Senate."

This week's hearings on war strategy could give a big boost to bipartisan efforts, says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. "The tone of this week's hearings is a shift from what we've seen before. I saw Republicans and Democrats really searching for answers – feeling their way toward some kind of a center and some kind of legislation that will give voters and Americans a rough schedule of what's going to happen," he says. "It's the endless nature of this war that's politically not good for Republicans."

Republicans facing tough reelection bids in 2008 were especially vocal in hearings this week.

"I have a lot of respect for General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker, but I continue to believe we should not delay to change the mission of our troops to lay the groundwork for a more significant drawdown," said Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee who has been targeted by national antiwar groups for her support of the war.

Other Republican lawmakers say they are troubled by the strain put on US forces by extended deployments. The Senate is within two votes of passing a measure to require minimum rest periods at home for US military units before redeployment to Iraq, says majority leader Harry Reid.

That idea, contained in a bill that passed the House on Aug. 2, would curb the president's ability to sustain current force levels in Iraq. Bush has threatened to veto it. In the Senate, Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia proposed a similar measure, but it failed to overcome a filibuster.

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