- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 7, 2007

The White House yesterday dismissed the defection of another senior Republican lawmaker, Sen. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico, and again asked lawmakers to hold off judgment on President Bush’s “surge” plan in Iraq until military advisers report back in September.

“I think there’s been a bit too much, maybe, made of what some people perceive as differences in terms of what our strategy is in Iraq,” said Bush spokesman Tony Fratto.

“This is a war,” he said, “and anyone who is thoughtful and wants to see us succeed and see that our forces succeed is going to take a look at this with a sober eye and make choices of conscience.”

The long-serving New Mexico senator on Thursday was the latest to abandon Mr. Bush regarding Iraq in calling for a change sooner rather than later.

“I have carefully studied the Iraq situation and believe we cannot continue asking our troops to sacrifice indefinitely while the Iraqi government is not making measurable progress to move its country forward,” said Mr. Dominici, who was elected in 1972 and is now a senior member of a panel that oversees defense spending.

But he made clear that he does not support counterproposals from Capitol Hill Democrats. “I do not support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops,” he said. “But I do support a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home.”

Mr. Domenici followed Republican Sens. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana and George V. Voinovich of Ohio, who last week said the United States should significantly downsize its military presence in Iraq while beefing up diplomatic efforts.

Mr. Bush is in danger of losing another longtime war supporter, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, who is expected to propose legislation this month calling for a new approach.

The White House was defensive about Republican defections, and advised all lawmakers to hold off judgment until after Gen. David Petraeus, commander of Multi-National Forces in Iraq, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, report on surge results in September.

“What we hope and what we counsel with the people we talk to is to let it — let your decisions be guided by the facts and by what we’re seeing on the ground,” Mr. Fratto said.

He reminded reporters yesterday at the White House briefing that what the Republican defectors are stating is nothing like what Democratic opponents desire.

“I think it’s important to remember they’re not talking about a precipitous withdrawal. They are not talking about defunding the troops. Those are hugely important distinctions. And those — again, these are thoughtful people that we can work with,” Mr. Fratto said.

Still, Mr. Domenici has moved further away than the White House acknowledges. He said he now supports a bipartisan Senate bill that embraces the findings of the independent Iraq Study Group, which late last year said combat troops could be out by March 2008 if specific steps were taken.

The bill is also backed by Sens. Robert F. Bennett, Utah Republican, Lamar Alexander, Tennessee Republican, and Ken Salazar, Colorado Democrat.

When Mr. Bush announced his plan in January to send 21,500 more combat troops to Iraq, Mr. Domenici said he was willing to give the plan a chance. But he added that his support would be based on whether the Iraqi government would meet its obligations under the plan.

“It is the Iraqi government that is failing to make even modest progress to help Iraq itself or to merit the sacrifices being made by our men and women in uniform,” Mr. Domenici said. “I am unwilling to continue our current strategy.”

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