Republican misgivings over President Bush's new war strategy are increasingly dividing the GOP as the Senate moves toward a showdown over the deployment of 21,500 additional troops to Iraq.
Republican strategy had envisioned a single resolution that would allow the party's senators to express doubts about the plan without stating their outright opposition. Instead, Republicans appear to be balkanizing, with at least five GOP drafts now in play and more Republicans stating their reservations.
"We're all looking for a plan that will work," said Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.). "The current plan is not working, and 21,500 additional troops — it's a snowball in July. It's not going to work."
Vice President Cheney and senior military officials attended a Republican policy lunch yesterday, which turned into a raucous debate about the various resolutions, according to a party leadership aide. Bush will meet with GOP senators on Friday as the White House continues to try to tamp down opposition.
But Republican misgivings are not subsiding. "This war has been mishandled. No one doubts that mistakes have been made in Iraq," Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), long a supporter of Bush's war policy, told Adm. William J. Fallon at Fallon's confirmation hearing to become the top U.S. commander for the Middle East. "I have to tell you, this committee did not get candid assessments in the past, and I view that with deep regret."
Having chastised Democrats for not showing unity on Iraq, Republican leaders have decided they need a resolution of their own when the Senate begins debate on nonbinding resolutions of opposition next week.
Specter, the ranking Republican on the Senate Judiciary Committee, pushed back against Bush's claim he is the "decision maker," saying the White House needs to accept Congress's role in shaping war policy.
‘Not the sole decider’
"I would suggest respectfully to the president that he is not the sole decider," Specter said during a hearing on Congress's war powers. "The decider is a shared and joint responsibility."
Republican leaders had hoped to divide Senate opinion largely along party lines, to allow Bush to argue that any outright statement opposing his plan was politically motivated partisanship. A resolution by McCain and Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) demanding tough benchmarks for progress in Iraq was supposed to garner overwhelming Republican support, being a more palatable alternative to language by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) that would state opposition to the troop buildup.
Instead, rival measures continue to proliferate. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) said he is circulating language that would forbid a cutoff of funding for troops in the field under any circumstance, similar to another proposal by Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.).
Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) is shopping around a measure that would demand that the president's policies be given a chance to work while calling for the reversal of perceived war-related mistakes, such as the wholesale purging of Baath Party members from the Iraqi government and the failure to ensure equitable oil-revenue sharing among Iraqi groups.
"Resolutions are flying like snowflakes around here," Specter said.
Meanwhile, the two camps promoting competing resolutions of opposition — one headed by Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and the other by Warner — have not agreed on common language that could win a clear majority .
"This isn't about party loyalty. This isn't about presidential politics. It's about policy," said an exasperated Sen. Olympia J. Snowe (R-Maine), who has been urging Warner to negotiate an agreement to meld his language with the Democratic-driven resolution approved last week by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "What America is desperately thirsting for is for the United States Senate and the United States House of Representatives to come to terms with where we are in Iraq."
Facing the voters in 2008
One group of ruminating Republicans is made up of the 20 GOP senators who will face voters in 2008. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) said she plans to support at least one of the measures — but first "I've got to study them all." Sen. John E. Sununu (N.H.), whose state is strongly against the war, reiterated his concerns about a troop buildup even as he refused to commit to any resolution.
The Warner measure has attracted at least three potentially vulnerable Republicans — Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Gordon Smith (Ore.).
Sen. Lamar Alexander (Tenn.), another Republican whose term will expire in two years, said he was speaking for many of his GOP colleagues in asserting, "I'm not persuaded that sending 21,500 troops into a civil war in Baghdad is a good idea, but I haven't found a resolution I can support."
Pressed on what he is looking for, Alexander replied: "I'd like to express my unhappiness with the way this war is being conducted, but also my support for the troops. I think that's what we all want."
Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the GOP whip, said most Republican senators believe they must support some statement about the war, given the public's growing concerns. But he noted: "I am actually reading all the different resolutions, and each one of them does have critical differences." He added that he is leaning toward the Cornyn measure, which offers the fewest objections to Bush's plan.
He said he will not try to rally Republicans around a single approach but, rather, will urge them to "vote their conscience."
‘Embolden the enemy’?
The multiplying factions raise the prospect that no measure will garner substantially more than 50 votes next week. That would represent something of a victory for the White House, which has argued that even nonbinding action by the Senate would "embolden the enemy," as Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates told reporters last week.
"The worst thing would be for the Senate by 60 votes to express disapproval of a mission we are sending people to lay down their lives for," said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), a member of the Republican leadership.
Democrats, who are united in their desire to stop the escalation, are regarding the Republican divisions with some glee. "You cannot have a resolution that is both meaningless and undercuts the troops. That's impossible. Their position is totally inconsistent," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (Ill.), a member of the House Democratic leadership.
The House is expected to embark on a similar debate in the coming weeks.