As Congress heads into a decisive month of reports, oversight hearings, and votes on the war in Iraq, most signs point to ongoing, deep divisions along party lines on US strategy in that war.
But in recent weeks, a small but growing number of lawmakers are looking for a Plan B that can win votes on both sides of the aisle.
With more Republicans openly expressing doubts about the war, Democrats are closer to the margins they need to force a change in the Bush administration's strategy on the war. But to get there, they may need to make compromises that risk alienating their antiwar base, such as dropping calls for an end date for the redeployment of US forces out of Iraq.
"There's an odd moment of bipartisan possibility right now," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey.
"Both parties are uneasy with the strategy they are using," he adds. "Republicans went home and heard bad things about the war. Many Democrats realize that unless they come up with legislation that Republicans can support, they're not going to get America closer to an exit strategy either, just talking about it."
For the first eight months of the 110th Congress, Republicans typically backed the White House on war votes, although GOP leaders warned that their commitment was not open-ended. Republican leaders said that their members would take another look in September, after hearing reports from Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq, and US Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who are scheduled to appear before House and Senate panels next week.
Congress has scheduled 13 hearings on the war in the next two weeks, including reports by the Government Accountability Office and an independent commission assessing the capabilities of Iraqi Security Forces. The Senate also plans votes on the Pentagon spending bill for fiscal year 2008 as well as President Bush's emergency war-funding request – all providing venues to attach conditions on his war policy.
In the run-up to these hearings and votes, lawmakers returning from visits to Iraq signaled a new mood on Capitol Hill. Rep. Brian Baird (D) of Washington, who had voted to oppose the war, came back from a trip to Iraq convinced that "the situation has at long last begun to change substantially for the better," he wrote in an Aug. 24 op-ed for The Seattle Times.
On the Republican side, Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia stunned many of his colleagues when he called for a drawdown of at least 5,000 US forces by Christmas to send a "sharp and clear message" to the Iraqi government and throughout the region. Also returning from a trip to the region, Senator Warner said that he picked up a copy of the Jordan Times and read that the Iraqis hold the key to any US withdrawals – a view generally shared in the region, he said.
"That's got to be dispelled. Our president holds the key to any US withdrawals, and I think a step, as I've outlined, will make that eminently clear," he said in a press briefing Aug. 23. The top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, Warner said he is not supporting a timetable for withdrawal or a date for its completion. He also announced that he will retire at the end of the 110th Congress.
Even with public sentiment strongly against the war, there are risks for lawmakers on both sides considering a compromise. For Republicans, it means a break with the Bush White House – and the GOP primary voters who still support his conduct of the war. In comments to the troops at the Al-Asad Air Base in Iraq on Monday, Mr. Bush said that decisions about troop levels would be made by US military commanders assessing conditions on the ground – "not a nervous reaction by Washington politicians to poll results in the media."
For Democrats, dropping an end date for a US withdrawal from Iraq means a rift with the party's antiwar base, who want their leaders in Congress to force a quick exit from that war.
At issue in the hearings and votes this week is whether members on both sides of the aisle can broaden the terms of the debate beyond party lines. In an opening statement at the first of these hearings Tuesday, Sen. Richard Lugar (R) of Indiana said that the Iraq debate had been "afflicted by partisan calculation."
"It will not serve US interests or sound policy-making if we focus on partisan oversimplifications or if our debate is constrained to the binary choice between surge and withdrawal," he said. Instead, Congress should be pressuring the Bush administration to plan for the next phase of US involvement in Iraq. "Regardless of what Iraq strategy is adopted, it must be sustainable, and it cannot be disassociated from the rest of US national security goals and obligations," he said.
Picking up that theme, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said that he favored "at least some level of bipartisan agreement that we need a long-term deployment somewhere in the Middle East, in the future, for two reasons: Al Qaeda and Iran."
On the House side, six Republicans and five Democrats called on their leaders this week to "put an end to the political infighting" and "allow the House to unite behind a bipartisan strategy to stabilize the country and bring our troops home." Republicans signing the letter include Pennsylvania Reps. Phil English, Jim Gerlach, and Charlie Dent, along with Rep. Michael Castle of Delaware, Scott Garrett of New Jersey, and Tom Petri of Wisconsin.
Meanwhile, most lawmakers are waiting to hear from General Petraeus next week – and watching for new moves toward political reconciliation in Iraq. "The purpose of the military surge was to give Iraqis political breathing room to make a political settlement," says Sen. Carl Levin (D) of Michigan, who chairs the Senate Armed Services Committee. "They haven't yet."
If the Iraqi government drafts a political compromise that could bring back disaffected Sunnis, "that would bring some votes, but not mine," he says.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid says that he is within two Republican votes of passing an amendment first proposed by Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia that limits the president's ability to quickly redeploy US forces in Iraq. "He is talking to Republicans to gauge their interest, but we haven't seen much movement yet," says Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senator Reid.