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GOP’s base helps keep unity on Iraq

The experiences of the few Republicans to vote against the war help explain the remarkable unity that the party has maintained in Washington behind an unpopular president.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

With public opinion tilting firmly toward ending U.S. involvement in the war in Iraq, Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest (R-Md.) might have expected praise for his votes that would start to bring the troops home. Instead, at town hall meetings on the Eastern Shore, the former Marine and Vietnam combat veteran has been called a coward and a traitor.

After Rep. Bob Inglis (R-S.C.) voted for a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's troop increases, reaction in his district was so furious that local GOP officials all but invited a primary challenge to the reliable conservative. Inglis responded with multiple mailings to his constituents, fence-mending efforts and a video message on his House Web site pleading his case. On subsequent Iraq votes, he has not strayed from the Republican fold.

The experiences of the few Republicans to vote against the war help explain the remarkable unity that the party has maintained in Washington behind an unpopular president. Just four Republicans -- two in the House, two in the Senate -- voted last week for a $124 billion war funding bill that would require troop withdrawals to begin by Oct. 1, legislation that Bush has vowed to veto.

'That's the dilemma'
That cohesion reflects the views of the GOP's core voters, who see the war in Iraq in fundamentally different terms than Democrats and political independents do, said Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. Voters from those groups tend to see unremitting gloom, but Republican base voters continue to see a conflict that is going reasonably well, with a decent chance of military success.

"That's the dilemma for Republicans going forward," Kohut said yesterday. "They've got to look out for their base, but they have to acknowledge the independents have aligned themselves with the way Democrats are thinking on the issue of Iraq."

It is also the dilemma facing both sides of the stalemate as they try to write a war funding bill that can be signed into law. A poll last week by the Pew Center found that 59 percent of Americans want their members of Congress to support legislation calling for troop withdrawals by August 2008. Only a third wanted their representatives to oppose such a bill.

But neither side wants compromise. Most of those supporting a timeline for withdrawal -- 54 percent -- said Democratic leaders should insist on that position rather than compromising with Bush. The same percentage of opponents of withdrawal say that Bush should give no ground to the Democrats.

"It's pretty clear that an overwhelming majority of Republicans think it's a bad idea to have a surrender" withdrawal date, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Friday. Lots of Republicans may feel uneasy. "I certainly am not happy with where we are in Iraq," he said, but "simply announcing when you're going to leave is a stunningly bad idea."

Bush is expected to veto the Democrats' bill on Wednesday, rejecting timelines for withdrawal, binding achievement benchmarks for the Iraqi government, and firm standards for resting, training and equipping combat troops. Congressional leaders will join him at the White House that day to launch talks on a second bill. And Republican leaders say they will stick by Bush's side.

"This isn't the way to go," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said of the Democrats' bill yesterday on ABC's "This Week." "This is assured defeat. Defeat will happen in America, not in Iraq. That's not what the American people want."

Bush White House not budging
The administration yesterday continued to show virtually no room for compromise, even on the one area where congressional Republicans see potential for negotiation. Party leaders have suggested there could be common ground on binding benchmarks tied to U.S. troop positions or to billions of tax dollars in nonmilitary assistance. But Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday hit three talk shows to reject such efforts.

"If you try and make consequences about these benchmarks," Rice said on ABC, "you're tying the hands of" Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, and Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq. "We shouldn't tie our own hands in using the tools that we have to help the Iraqis along with national reconciliation."

Democrats were also offering few concessions.

"What this is about is not who is comfortable or who is uncomfortable, whether we can all hold hands. This is about the fact . . . that American troops are dying for no good reason at this point," Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) said on the same show. "They are in a situation where they are being sacrificed because people want political comfort in Washington."

Activists on both sides of the impasse are mobilizing against compromise. Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, an antiwar umbrella group, has launched a television advertisement to rally pressure on Bush to sign the Democrats' bill.

Protesters plan to be in front of the White House today to unfurl a replica of the "Mission Accomplished" banner that served as a backdrop to Bush's speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln four years ago Tuesday declaring an end to major combat operations. Within 90 minutes of a veto, Americans Against Escalation will be holding news conferences in 24 states, and rallies are planned in hundreds of locations in the 36 hours after the expected veto -- all to keep pressure on Congress to defy Bush's demands for war funding without policy strings attached.

The conservative Web site has launched a pressure campaign with petitions and call-in efforts to lawmakers and talk radio, encouraging policymakers to "stay the course on the war on terror."

"We don't believe that you can wage a war with poll-tested numbers," House Republican Conference Chairman Adam H. Putnam (R-Fla.) said yesterday on CNN's "Late Edition." "Everybody knows war is ugly. But the fact of the matter is that defeating al-Qaeda in Iraq and bringing stability to that country is important to the security of this country."

Staff writer Shailagh Murray contributed to this report.