GOP Senators to Bush: Time’s up!

Several Republican senators told President Bush’s top national security aide privately Wednesday that they did not want Bush to wait until September to change course in Iraq.

The meeting that lawmakers had with national security adviser Stephen Hadley came as GOP Sens. Olympia Snowe and Chuck Hagel announced they would back Democratic legislation ordering combat to end next spring.

Republican support for the war has steadily eroded in recent weeks as the White House prepared an interim progress report that found that the U.S.-backed government in Baghdad has made little progress in meeting major targets of reform.

Of the GOP lawmakers who say the U.S. should reduce its military role in Iraq, nearly all are up for re-election in 2008.

“I’m hopeful they (the White House) change their minds,” said Sen. Pete Domenici, R-N.M.

Domenici and at least five other Republicans support a bill by Sen. Ken Salazar, D-Colo., that would adopt as U.S. policy the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group Report.

The bipartisan panel, led by Republican James A. Baker III and Democrat Lee Hamilton, said the U.S. should hand off the combat mission to the Iraqis, bolster diplomatic efforts in the region and pave the way for a drawdown of troops by spring 2008.

Domenici, who is expected to face voters next year, said he and other co-sponsors told Hadley the president shouldn’t wait until September to adopt the bipartisan policy.

“The only difference of opinion at the moment is, the president wants to deal with the Baker-Hamilton recommendations in September,” said Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., one of the first GOP co-sponsors.

“I think he should do that today because it develops a long-term strategy for what happens in the surge,” added Alexander, who also is up for re-election. “It would put him and Congress on the same path, which is what we definitely need.”

Members said Hadley did not indicate the White House would switch gears. Bush this week said he will not reconsider the military strategy in Iraq until Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. military commander there, delivers his progress report in September.

“He was not in a position to do anything other than say ‘I hear you,’ ” Domenici said of Hadley.

Other Republicans at the meeting did not call for immediate change, but offered tepid support for the current policy.

Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota said he was seriously considering Salazar’s legislation and remained gravely concerned about the lack of progress in Iraq.

“I’m still in the same place, and I don’t think there were any hearts or minds changed in there,” Coleman said upon leaving the meeting.

Sen. John Warner, R-Va., who also attended the meeting, is expected to call for a change in Iraq policy after Bush releases on Thursday that interim report on Baghdad’s political progress.

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, a staunch supporter of Bush’s Iraq policies, said he and many others would stick behind Bush. But “obviously everyone was concerned, and we’re trying to figure out what the answer is,” he said.

GOP support has become crucial as the Senate opened debate on a $649 billion defense policy bill.

The Senate on Wednesday voted against advancing a measure that would have restricted combat deployments by requiring that troops spend as much time at home as in battle. The 56-41 vote on the proposal by Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., fell four votes short of the 60 needed to cut off debate.

The Senate is expected to vote next week on an amendment by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., that would order troop withdrawals to begin in 120 days and end all combat on April 30, 2008. The House plans to take up a similar measure on Thursday.

Levin’s amendment is not expected to survive and Bush has vowed to veto it if it does. But in a signal of growing unease with the war, it has picked up at least one new vote from Snowe of Maine.

Snowe initially opposed setting a firm deadline, contending it would not make any sense to broadcast war plans to the enemy. But the senator, who is not up for re-election next year but faces a strong anti-war constituency, said she decided to switch her position because the situation has grown too dire.

“Frankly, given the fact that the Iraqi government isn’t prepared to change its own political direction, we should be prepared to change course with respect to our strategy,” Snowe told reporters Tuesday.

Hagel of Nebraska and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., also signed on as co-sponsors of the bill; both voted for a similar measure earlier this year.

Hadley’s visit to Capitol Hill came as the White House finalized a 23-page progress report on Iraq that concludes the government in Baghdad has made little progress in meeting reform goals laid down by Bush and Congress.

The administration is likely to argue that some progress has been made in reducing the level of sectarian violence and militia control. Iraq also has established several, but not all, of the needed joint neighborhood security stations in Baghdad and has increased the number of capable Iraqi security units.

But the report also is expected to concede that several major goals have not been met, including agreement on new Iraqi laws to allocate oil and gas resources and revenue and to address amnesty for former Baath Party members. White House spokesman Tony Fratto said the report will indicate whether there has been “progress at a satisfactory rate, or unsatisfactory rate, and in some cases, maybe mixed results on some of those benchmarks.”