A long-anticipated Republican surge against the Iraq war faltered in Congress this week, prompting top Democrats to predict that bipartisan moves to wind down a US combat role aren't likely until next spring.
Republicans asked tough questions at oversight hearings on the war last week. None more so than Sen. John Warner (R) of Virginia, the former chairman on the Armed Services Committee.
His question to Gen. David Petraeus, the top US commander in Iraq – Does US strategy in Iraq "make America safer?" – marked a flash point in last week's hearings. (The general replied: "Sir, I don't know, actually.")
But the sharp-edged questions failed to translate into votes this week on a measure that antiwar forces saw as their best shot to force a change in course in Iraq. Votes this week also stalled moves toward a bipartisan consensus on the war and set the debate firmly back on a partisan basis.
"Now, Bush will wage the war as he sees fit right up until his last days, period," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, commenting on the outcome of the vote.
Instead of leading other GOP moderates into opposition against President Bush's war strategy, Senator Warner reversed a previous vote and sided with the White House on an amendment to the $648.8 billion defense authorization bill that would have required rest periods for US troops before deploying back into Iraq or Afghanistan.
Had the measure passed, it would have curbed Mr. Bush's ability to sustain current troop levels in Iraq. Warner's defection left Democrats four votes short of the 60 votes needed for it to advance.
The loss of Warner was a blow to supporters of the amendment, sponsored by Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia, who had expected Warner not only to support the measure, as he had last July, but also to bring other GOP moderates along with him.
As chairman of the Armed Services Committee when Republicans controlled the Senate, Warner bucked the White House to investigate abuses in Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison in July 2004. Earlier the same year, he held hearings on why no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq. With the GOP out of power, he introduced a bipartisan amendment last January disapproving of the "surge," and last month called on the president to bring 5,000 US troops home by Christmas.
That record, along with his much-cited questions during last week's oversight hearings on the war, led some Democrats to see this week's vote as a possible tipping point in bipartisan opposition to the war.
Until five minutes before Wednesday's vote, Senator Webb thought that Warner was still with him. "Senator Warner probably struggled with this right down to the wire," Webb said, after the vote. "The secretary of defense turned up the heat and made Senator Warner very uncomfortable."
Warner says that what made the difference was "a lot of very careful and analytical work with the uniformed side of the Department of Defense." He agrees with the principles in the Webb amendment – that US troops be ensured at least as much time at home as they spend deployed in combat – but that consultations with the Pentagon convinced him that it can't be done without "further unfairness to other soldiers now serving in Iraq," he says.
Commenting on prospects for a new bipartisan rallying point on the war, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R) of Nebraska, a cosponsor of the Webb amendment, said after the vote: "It's going to be a long, emotional debate, in months if not in years."
As recently as last week, Democrats were still talking about prospects for a bipartisan tack on the war. But after a meeting with antiwar activists in New York on Monday – and an updated head count of probable GOP defectors – Senate majority leader Harry Reid scaled back expectations. On Tuesday, he squelched speculation that Democrats would offer a vote on a measure that set goals, rather than a timetable, for the redeployment of US combat forces out of Iraq.
"Two weeks ago, he tried as hard as he could, but Republicans aren't willing to break with the president," says Senator Reid's spokesman Jim Manley. The majority leader made numerous phone calls and met privately with a dozen Republicans to see how far they were prepared to go. "He met a wall of solid resistance. He wasn't prepared to accept a fig leaf: We need to bring the troops home from Iraq," he added.
On the House side, leaders also signaled that prospects for any bipartisan resolution were fading. Rep. John Murtha (D) of Pennsylvania, who chairs the defense subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee says that he had expected Republicans to jump ship on the Bush administration's Iraq war policy in September. "Then I started thinking about the primaries. I see what happens to a Republican when they say that we ought to start to get out. They bash them," he said at a briefing at the National Press Club Monday. Until the primary season plays out, "we're going to have a problem," he says.
Antiwar activists say that this week's war votes will hurt Republicans in the general elections in 2008. "The Republicans are getting closer to the disaster that everyone knows is coming," says Tom Matzzie, Washington director for MoveOn.org, which launched a new TV ad attacking Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell over his support of the war.
"Petraeus had no impact on public opinion. The public still wants an end to the war. The Republicans have decided they want to take on the American people: Let them have at it," says Mr. Matzzie.