Despite a growing number of Republicans openly opposing the White House on the Iraq war, the Senate is not yet at the critical mass of votes needed to force a change in strategy.
But discontent in GOP ranks is producing the most wide-open debate in the Senate since US forces entered Iraq in March 2003.
This time, Republican lawmakers are joining Democrats in developing amendments to a $648.8 billion defense authorization bill on issues ranging from adequate rest for troops between deployments to a top-to-bottom overhaul of the mission.
"Senators are listening very carefully. This issue has got the full attention of everybody," says Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee.
The debate is also revealing a growing bipartisan consensus on the facts on the ground, including the conviction that – short of draconian measures – current US force levels cannot be sustained in Iraq beyond next April, regardless of whether Congress has the votes to legislate a timetable of withdrawal.
"The surge has to come to an end because of lack of manpower, and there is a growing recognition among all my colleagues that the public will not support the war," said Sen. Jack Reed (D) of Rhode Island.
On Tuesday, he and Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, introduced an amendment calling on the Secretary of Defense to begin the reduction of the number of US forces in Iraq not later than 120 days after the enactment of the law – and to complete the transition by April 30, 2008.
A similar resolution picked up 39 votes in the Senate in 2006 and, most recently, 51 votes in 2007, including two Republicans, Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith of Oregon. Senators Reed and Levin say they could lose votes because the April 30 date is binding, not a target date as it has been previously. "But we could also gain votes," Levin said.
Democrats are also rallying GOP support on amendments aiming to improve the quality of life for US forces facing repeated deployments. Sen. James Webb (D) of Virginia and Senator Hagel are cosponsoring an amendment to limit the length of troop deployments overseas. "It's a floor to protect the well-being of the people who will be sent," says Senator Webb.
On the Republican side, intense discussions are ongoing on how to balance the need to pressure the White House for change, yet maintain support for US interests in the region.
"The president and his team must come to grips with the shortened political timeline in this country for military operations in Iraq," said Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana, in a June 25 speech that set off a run of GOP defections.
But he and other Republicans, including Sens. George Voinovich (R) of Ohio and Pete Domenici (R) of New Mexico, who have since broken with the White House, say that the US has legitimate interests in the region that must be preserved.
"The task of securing US interests in the Middle East will be extremely difficult if Iraq policy is formulated on a partisan basis, with protagonists on both sides ignoring the complexities at the core of our situation," Senator Lugar added.
Senator Smith, who broke with the White House on the war last December, says it's essential to maintain "a reasonable security force in Iraq so that our people remaining aren't just slaughtered.
But he and other Republicans interviewed by the Monitor say that they are deeply disappointed with the failure of the Iraqi government to take the steps toward political reconciliation needed to sustain a unified nation. "A lot of people have growing misgivings that the US has a partner in Iraq that wanted what we wanted," he says. "No matter what they say, their actions are very much about carving up the country."
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R) of Tennessee is cosponsoring a measure with Sen. Ken Salazar (D) of Colorado that would make the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group the policy of the US government, including a March 2008 goal for the drawdown of troops.
"We're going to do whatever has the best chance of creating a bipartisan consensus on what we need to do to go forward in Iraq," he says. "At some point, we're going to have to stop shouting at each other and see what we agree on."
Sens. Warner and Ben Nelson (D) of Nebraska are working with a bipartisan group of senators on another amendment but will not release their proposal until after the president's interim report on Iraq, due July 15. "I want to look at redeployment as opposed to setting dates for withdrawal. I want to focus on what the enemy is and the enemy is Al Qaeda," Senator Nelson says.
At the same time, Republicans supporting the war are working behind the scenes to rally their colleagues against what they call a precipitous withdrawal. "That would be a disaster," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, in his first floor speech since a trip to Iraq last week.
"I sense some political panicking and some genuine frustration with policy, but I believe there will be more than 40 votes to make sure we do not pass amendments that would undermine the troops in the field and cut short the surge," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who also just returned from Iraq.
In Cleveland on Tuesday, President Bush called the US troop deployment in Iraq "necessary to the security of the United States and the peace of the world."
Mr. Bush urged Congress to give Gen. David Petraeus a chance to report to lawmakers in September on whether his strategies are working.
"I welcome a good honest debate about the consequences of failure and the consequences of success in this war, but I believe that it's in the nation's interest to give the commander authority to fully implement his strategy," Bush said.