- The Washington Times - Thursday, September 13, 2007

Senate Republicans, bolstered by Army Gen. David H. Petraeus’ war report this week, are closing ranks and say Democrats will continue to fall far shy of the votes needed to force a pullout from Iraq.

Republicans facing intense antiwar pressure in home states, such as Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, and the party’s war critics, including Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, say the general’s congressional testimony helped persuade them not to switch their votes.

“I’m supportive of a reasonable plan which they offered,” Mr. Lugar said on PBS’ “NewsHour” after Gen. Petraeus, U.S. commander in Iraq, called for withdrawing about 30,000 troops by July.

President Bush, in a prime-time address tonight, is expected to endorse the general’s plan to return to the pre-surge force strength of 130,000 troops by July.

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who failed repeatedly to muster enough votes to compel the president to accept a pullout plan, yesterday said he will try again next week with measures to force significantly larger troop reductions.

“I call on Senate Republicans not to walk lockstep with the president as they have done for years,” the Nevada Democrat said. “It is time to come over and join us.”

Mr. Reid said Democrats will introduce four to six war bills, including measures for large-scale troop reductions and to transition the mission from combat to training Iraqi forces and conducting counterterrorism operations.

He did not provide details of the legislation, but the characterization of measures was nearly identical to failed bills from earlier this year.

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, conceded the general’s recommendations only made it harder to get enough votes to legislate an end to the war.

“It provides an illusion of change to take the wind out of the sails of those of us who do want to have a change in Iraq,” he said.

He said the Mr. Bush’s plan is not a new strategy but the “definition of an open-ended commitment.”

White House Press Secretary Tony Snow said the war cannot go on indefinitely.

“The American people don’t like the war,” Mr. Snow said in his last briefing before leaving the job tomorrow. “There has to be progress, and I’m happy to report that there is and there must continue to be.”

In the narrowly divided Senate, Democrats have fallen at least eight votes short of the 60 votes needed to stop a filibuster of pullout legislation and far short of the 67 votes needed to override a presidential veto.

“I’ve spent the last couple days checking with Republicans, and they haven’t moved toward Democrats,” said Minority Whip Trent Lott, Mississippi Republican.

“The odds are that when the smoke clears none on the bills will get the 60 votes.”

The Democrats’ previous attempts to pull out troops or affect the mission garnered support from, at most, just three Republicans: Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine.

In July, Miss Collins voted with Democrats to stop a filibuster but said she did not support setting a deadline to withdraw most troops from Iraq.

House Minority Whip Roy Blunt, Missouri Republican, said his caucus is considerably more unified on the war issue following the report by Gen. Petraeus and Ryan C. Crocker, U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

The report cited improved security in and around Baghdad and tribal leaders helping defeat al Qaeda but limited progress of the fledgling Iraqi government toward unifying the country and ending sectarian fighting.

Democrats say the surge strategy failed because Iraq’s government did not take advantage of the security gains or “breathing room” provided by added U.S. troops.

“We’ve taken a different approach than [Democrats] have on Iraq from the very start,” said Mr. Blunt. “They saw Iraq as a political issue, and we saw it as both a security issue and an issue that had to be above politics for our members.”

The fact that few if any members of Congress are shifting their position likely signals a replay of Democratic losses in past war debates.

Mr. Lugar, the ranking Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, was one the party’s most prominent senators to break with Mr. Bush, saying in June that the president’s plan for a surge of 30,000 troops into Iraq was not working.

His defection from Mr. Bush was viewed at the time as a watershed for Republican opposition to the war.

But Mr. Lugar retracted his criticism of the surge strategy Tuesday on “NewsHour,” saying it “has brought about a greater degree of safety for some people in Baghdad and other adjoining provinces.”

He said he expected a fairly large number of U.S. troops in Iraq through 2008 and the presidential election.

Sen. George V. Voinovich, Ohio Republican, whose criticism of the war this summer sparked more speculation about the president’s dwindling support, says he still opposes a rapid troop withdrawal.

He wants Mr. Bush to signal that the U.S. commitment in Iraq is not open-ended but has not made a “major shift” since voting against the Democrat’s pullout plan in July, Voinovich spokesman Chris Paulitz said.

Miss Collins advocates larger force reductions than the general recommended but she remains “uncomfortable with hard deadlines” for a withdrawal, an aide said.

Republican leaders also say the Democrat-led Congress’ fixation on the war is preventing action on essential legislation, such as fixing the alternative minimum tax and passing spending bills for the budget year beginning Oct. 1.

Sean Lengell and Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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