Friday, January 12, 2007

Republican leaders on Capitol Hill staunchly back President Bush’s proposal to boost troop levels in Iraq but support among the party’s rank and file may be crumbling.

“At this late stage, interjecting more young American troops into the crossfire of an Iraqi civil war is simply not the right approach,” Rep. Ric Keller, a Florida Republican who has been steadfastly supportive of the war, said on the House floor yesterday. “We are not going to solve an Iraqi political problem with an American military solution.”

Sen. Chuck Hagel, Nebraska Republican, predicted that the plan would be “the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in the country since Vietnam — if it is carried out.”

“I think what [Mr. Bush has] decided to do is both courageous and correct,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, told reporters yesterday. “It strikes me, in listening to the critics emerging already, that the president can’t win either way. Before he changed directions, he was being criticized. And now that he’s changing directions, he’s being criticized.”

Mr. McConnell yesterday hinted that Senate Republicans would filibuster any resolution by Democrats expressing disapproval of the war in Iraq or Mr. Bush’s plan to add more than 21,000 troops to the battlefield.

“Congress is completely incapable of dictating the tactics in a war,” he said, adding that if Democrats are so unhappy, they should cut off funding.

“What they want to do, apparently, is to leave,” Mr. McConnell said. “And there is only one effective device of Congress that can be employed to bring about that result, and that opportunity will be provided when the supplemental appropriation comes up in February. If they want to cut off money for the troops, that’s the time to do it.”

Opposition to their commander in chief appears to be considerable, especially for a conference that has been overwhelmingly supportive of the Bush administration for the past six years. However, it is unlikely that there is much Republican congressional critics can or will do to alter the president’s military plans in Iraq.

An informal survey by The Washington Times yesterday, for instance, found nine Senate Republicans who have “doubts” about Mr. Bush’s proposal, and seven who reject it. Eleven other senators expressed conditional support.

Twenty-one Republican senators offered unqualified support. Only Sen. Wayne Allard, Colorado Republican, did not respond to requests for comment.

Mr. Bush went into his Wednesday speech with opinion polls showing strong disapproval of his handling of Iraq, and initial reaction suggests he didn’t sway many voters.

“When you’ve got a 30 percent overall rating, you’ve got a credibility problem,” said pollster John Zogby, who said Mr. Bush needed to “hit a grand slam home run” Wednesday to earn back public confidence, and didn’t.

“At best, he presented a solution that was one of several bad alternatives, and the one that polls at least, and I’m just a public opinion guy, that polls show was the worst.”

However, an ABC-Washington Post poll taken after the speech and released yesterday found Mr. Bush had gained some ground with Americans on his handling of Iraq overall, to reach 34 percent, or 7 percent higher than last month’s survey. But asked about Mr. Bush’s new plan, 61 percent said they oppose it.

Even among his strongest supporters in the Senate, Mr. Bush faces new scrutiny. “That’s why you’re seeing tougher and tougher questions being asked by us,” said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, Georgia Republican.

Sen. Pat Roberts, Kansas Republican, called Mr. Bush’s proposal “the only realistic choice given the regional instability and danger we face. But this support is not without limits.”

Other Republicans were more critical of the president’s proposal. Sen. Gordon H. Smith of Oregon called it Mr. Bush’s “Hail Mary pass.”

Sen. Norm Coleman, Minnesota Republican, said that “to put the lives of [more] Americans soldiers” into the Iraq conflict, “without first having something that’s substantial, something we can point to, other than this sense of trust, other than looking someone in the eye, having a conversation. I’m not prepared, at this time, to support that. The cost is too great.”

Many of the Republican senators criticizing the president yesterday are up for re-election in 2008, such as Mr. Hagel, Mr. Smith and Mr. Coleman. Mr. Hagel has hinted he may run for president.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, at a briefing with other Senate Democratic leaders, boasted that he could win over 12 Republicans to sign a nonbinding resolution opposing a troop increase.

Democrats say they hope to bring the resolution to a vote next week and confront Mr. Bush with official opposition from senators in his own party. “That will be the beginning of the end of the war in Iraq,” Mr. Reid said.

The seven Republican senators who are openly opposed to sending more troops are Mr. Hagel, Mr. Smith, Mr. Coleman, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, Sen. Sam Brownback of Kansas, Sen. Olympia J. Snowe of Maine and Sen. Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania.

The nine Republican senators who appear to be undecided, if not opposed, are Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, Sen. George V. Voinovich of Ohio, Sen. Bob Corker of Tennessee, Sen. Michael D. Crapo of Idaho, Sen. Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, Sen. John E. Sununu of New Hampshire, Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.

• Stephen Dinan contributed to this report.

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