Despite misgivings over the war in Iraq, Republicans on Capitol Hill rallied this week to give President Bush two more months to improve prospects for security and political reconciliation there.
That support is key to the future course of US policy in Iraq. Unless more Republicans swing to their side, the Democratic majorities in the House and Senate don't have the votes to pass war legislation that can survive a presidential veto. But support for Mr. Bush's strategy is fragile among many GOP lawmakers and it will be tested again next week in the Senate.
Just seven hours after the release of President Bush's interim report on progress in Iraq, the US House of Representatives voted 223-201 to begin drawing down US forces in Iraq. But only four Republicans joined the revolt – well short of the two-thirds needed to overturn a promised presidential veto.
On the Senate side, seven GOP lawmakers this week backed a bipartisan amendment to curb the president's ability to rapidly redeploy men and women into combat. But that, too, left Democrats four votes short of the 60 needed to move controversial legislation in the Senate.
The move, sponsored by Sens. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia and Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, both combat veterans, would have guaranteed rest time at home for US forces comparable to their previous deployments. Under such limits, the Pentagon could not sustain troop "surge" levels of 160,000 in Iraq through the spring, critics said.
There will be more key votes in the Senate next week on the $648.8 billion defense authorization bill. Proposed amendments range from a timetable for the withdrawal of US combat forces from Iraq to a call to adopt the 2006 Iraq Study Group's recommendations as official US policy.
But the White House and top GOP leaders are urging their colleagues to stay the course until Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, and US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker give Congress a full report on US strategy in Iraq by Sept. 15.
In a press briefing on his interim report, released Thursday, President Bush said that when the US begins drawing down its forces in Iraq, it will be because "our military commanders say the conditions on the ground are right, not because pollsters say it'll be good politics."
"The real debate over Iraq is between those who think the fight is lost or not worth the cost and those who believe the fight can be won, and that as difficult as the fight is, the cost of defeat would be far higher," he said
Of the 18 benchmarks of progress required by Congress, eight were ranked satisfactory, eight unsatisfactory, and two mixed. The report described the security situation in Iraq as "complex and extremely challenging" and said many key steps toward political reconciliation, including a new law to fairly distribute the nation's oil revenues, are lagging.
The government of Iraq, with substantial coalition assistance, has made satisfactory progress toward reducing sectarian violence but has shown unsatisfactory progress towards eliminating militia control of local security, the report concluded. Nor are the Iraqi security forces providing "even-handed enforcement of the law."
Citing such concerns, Democrats and some Republicans say there is already a strong case for changing the mission of US forces in Iraq. But critics have not yet found a new way forward that can rally enough votes to force the White House to change course.
"There's been very little progress [in Iraq], and I don't see that changing between now and September," says Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine, who says she is not ruling out voting with Democrats to mandate a change in mission with a timetable.
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.
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.