Senators divided over advice from Iraq Study Group

December 08, 2006|By Maura Reynolds and Doyle McManus | Maura Reynolds and Doyle McManus,LOS ANGELES TIMES

WASHINGTON -- The co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group urged Congress yesterday to build a bipartisan consensus around their recommendations and use it to press President Bush to change course in Iraq.

They didn't get their wish.

"I hope we don't treat this like a fruit salad and say, `I like this but I don't like that,'" former Secretary of State James A. Baker III pleaded before the Senate Armed Services Committee as it considered the panel's report.

The senators promptly ignored his request, picking and choosing among the panel's findings, praising some and condemning others.

Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican, disagreed strongly with the panel's call for a withdrawal of most U.S. troops by 2008, calling it "a recipe that will lead to our defeat."

Sens. Joseph I. Lieberman, a Connecticut Democrat, Susan M. Collins, a Maine Republican, and Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican, questioned the commission's proposal that the Bush administration approach Iran in search of help in stabilizing Iraq.

Sen. Bill Nelson, a Florida Democrat, sounded skeptical of Baker's view that Israel could help by returning the Golan Heights to Syria.

And Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican, took issue with the panel's suggestion that the United States should consider warning Iraq's government that U.S. troops could be withdrawn unless political reforms accelerate.

Those critiques came on top of earlier negative reactions. Rep. John P. Murtha, a Pennsylvania Democrat, complained that the panel did not call for a rapid withdrawal of U.S. troops. The conservative New York Post derided Baker and his co-chairman, former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, on its front page as "Surrender Monkeys," complete with a photo-montage of two simians wearing the elder statesmen's faces.

It wasn't exactly the reception Baker and Hamilton had in mind.

When Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a New York Democrat, asked the former secretary of state what he wanted Congress to do with his report, Baker replied: "If the Congress would come together behind supporting, let's say utopianly, all of the recommendations of this report, that would do a lot toward moving things downtown [at the White House]."

Sen. John W. Warner, the Virginia Republican who chairs the committee, broke in to say that Congress should not explicitly endorse any recommendations until it has a chance to consider the findings of similar policy reviews under way at the Pentagon and the State Department.

"Yes, the Congress is very impressed with your report," Warner said. "But ... before the Congress rushes in, I'm just hopeful we can have all points."

Baker pressed his case. "Could you say, `This is good until something better comes along?'" he urged.

But Warner demurred. "I'll let your question stand unanswered," he said.

As Warner noted, Baker and Hamilton collected plenty of general praise for their work, and for their success - rare in Washington - at forging a consensus among an equal number of Republicans and Democrats.

Sen. Carl Levin, the Michigan Democrat scheduled to take over the committee chairman's seat when Democrats ascend to the Senate majority next month, was the most supportive, saying: "I hope the administration will accept the recommendations in this report and will determine a changed course is the best hope of turning around this quote, `grave and deteriorating situation,' in the words of the report."

Clinton also praised the panel's work broadly. "We've now heard from the Iraq Study Group, but we need the White House to become the Iraq results group," she said.

Baker and Hamilton told reporters they were generally pleased with the reception their work has met - and not surprised that members of Congress questioned parts of the package.

"Our work and our ideas have been taken seriously," Hamilton said. "Part of it is just the environment in the country today, which is desperate for a solution in Iraq.

"If you look at the critics, many of them are adopting the position that basically it's hopeless," he said. "Does that mean we shouldn't even try?"

Asked whether Bush shared the commission's view of Iraq as "grave and deteriorating," the Indiana Democrat said: "Well, he's getting closer. ... He didn't jump up and embrace the report. That wasn't our expectation."

Baker, grinning, held up the New York Post front page depicting him as a "surrender monkey," and said, "It's going on the wall."

Maura Reynolds and Doyle McManus write for the Los Angeles Times.

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