Congress is gearing up for a big vote next week to oppose President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq, beginning with a nonbinding resolution that could draw strong Republican support.
It's the first step in a long struggle between the White House and the new Democratic-controlled Congress over the endgame in Iraq.
If a nonbinding resolution opposing the surge of 21,500 troops into Iraq is approved, Democrats could quickly move stronger legislation to build a congressional firewall against any future move to broaden the war to Iran or Syria. Others are testing the waters for GOP support for the ultimate weapon in a showdown with the White House – curbs on funding.
But the key to an effective push back – including the 67 votes needed to overturn a presidential veto – is building bridges to Republicans. The blitz of oversight hearings continuing this week gives lawmakers on both sides of the aisle time to sound each other out.
Congressional committees plan 10 hearings this week on issues ranging from defense contracting practices and US force protection to alternative Iraq strategies and the influence of Iraq's neighbors. Especially on the Senate side, Republicans have been among the strongest critics of administration policy.
"It's fair to say you saw 21 very concerned senators today," said Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, after hearings on the administration's plan for Iraq before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week. An early opponent of the war, Senator Hagel called Mr. Bush's proposed troop surge "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam."
"It's now up to the Congress to give to our friends in the Middle East some reassurance that we can govern," he says. "Someone has to start framing up some reality, and this administration is disconnected from reality."
In public comments, Senate majority leader Harry Reid has claimed up to a dozen Republicans who could join Democrats in votes opposing the surge of troops into Iraq.
"It's possible that you could see 12 Republicans split" with the president, says Jennifer Duffy, who covers the Senate for the Cook Political Report. "They're in the minority now, Bush is a lame duck, and Republicans think that Iraq played a big part in losing their majorities. It's become every man for himself."
GOP leadership aides say that the size of the defection will depend on the precise wording of the resolution, which has yet to be finalized. Should Democrats go too far in their criticism of the commander in chief at a time of war, it could pull the GOP caucus closer together.
"One thing that will unite the Republican conference is if there is an attempt to cut off funds to our troops at a time of war. That will provoke a backlash from the American people," says Sen. John Cornyn (R) of Texas.
Sens. Gordon Smith (R) of Oregon and Norm Coleman (R) of Minnesota, who are up for reelection in 2008, were among the first Republicans to break with the White House over Iraq. Last week, they were joined by other critics from within GOP ranks.
"I am skeptical that a surge of troops will bring an end to the escalation of violence and the insurgency in Iraq," says Sen. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio. "I don't see that you'll end up having the democracy I once hoped for. I'm absolutely against the surge."
The pressure is especially strong on Republicans in states swinging Democratic. Sen. John Sununu (R) of New Hampshire, who is also up for reelection next year, says that the burden has to shift to the Iraqi government. "There's very strong expectation that they follow up on commitments, and this isn't an open-ended commitment. I have [doubts] that troops preparing to be used in Iraq can be effective against sectarian organizations," he says.
"I'm also disappointed that there still is not a formal framework for other countries in the region to play a more effective, constructive role in supporting the Iraqi government," he says.
Sen. John Warner, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has been attempting to develop a bipartisan consensus on Iraq. "So far, he has expressed concern about putting US forces in the middle of a sectarian conflict," says spokesman John Ullyot, who says the senator will make his position known this week.
Meanwhile, Republicans still supporting the White House on the war say it's important that Lt. Gen. David Petraeus, the new American commander in Iraq, appears quickly before Congress.
"He's the strongest spokesman the administration has, and he needs to get here fast," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina.
Sen. Jeff Sessions (R) of Alabama, who has been a strong supporter of the administration's policy on Iraq, says that he's encouraged that the White House is taking up some of his concerns. In talks with the president last Monday, he raised the issue that Iraq needs to quickly "create a court system that deals with threats to the Iraqi state promptly."
He adds: "When people don't feel safe, you can't wait five years to create a court system."