The battle begins on war strategy

Senate committee approves measure protesting president's new Iraq plan

January 25, 2007|By Mark Silva | Mark Silva,CHICAGO TRIBUNE

WASHINGTON — Measure sets up conflict over troop increase

WASHINGTON -- Setting the stage for a wartime conflict between Congress and President Bush over the deployment of additional troops to Iraq, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee approved a resolution yesterday declaring that the president's new war strategy is "not in the national interest."

Several war critics said they view the resolution as the first step in a confrontation with the president that could lead to a restriction on Bush's war-spending powers, while acknowledging that they lack the votes for that at this juncture.

The resolution was approved largely along party lines by the Democratic-controlled committee. Republican opponents called it a toothless protest, yet said it would send the wrong message about the American commitment to Iraq, endangering U.S. troops and emboldening their enemies.

But Democratic sponsors said the resolution, ready for debate by the full Senate next week, represents the first clear message of congressional opposition to the president's war strategy since Congress authorized the use of military force in Iraq in the fall of 2002.

"It's an attempt to save the president from making a significant mistake with regard to our policy in Iraq," said Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., a Delaware Democrat. "My intention is to send the first of many messages to the president, unequivocal. ... `Mr. President, stop what you are doing.'"

Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, the sole Republican on the committee supporting the resolution, warned of what is at stake: "This is a pingpong game with American lives. ... And we better be damn sure we know what we're doing, all of us, before we put 22,000 more Americans into that grinder."

Bush, ordering the deployment of an additional 21,500 soldiers and Marines to Iraq, insists that his decision offers the best chance of helping the Iraqi government gain control over sectarian violence and terrorist acts that are claiming hundreds of lives there each week.

In his State of the Union address to a joint session of Congress on Tuesday night, the president asserted that "it is still within our power to shape the outcome of this battle," and he warned that "the consequences of failure would be grievous and far-reaching."

Yet the bipartisan tone that the president attempted to strike with a new, Democratic-controlled Congress lasted less than 12 hours, with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee voting 12-9 yesterday to adopt its resolution protesting the president's deployment. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin of Maryland, a committee member, voted for the resolution with his fellow Democrats.

With the full Senate ready to debate the issue next week - and House Democratic leaders planning to follow swiftly - some Republican critics of the war, most notably Sen. John W. Warner of Virginia, are advancing a resolution of their own. And Biden, attempting to corral more Republican votes for his resolution, is negotiating its wording.

The White House maintains that it will be undeterred by the protesting resolutions.

"The vote came out as we expected it would," said deputy press secretary Dana Perino. "As the president said last night, we understand that members have differences of opinion, but he asked that they give the plan a chance."

Democrats acknowledge that they lack the votes at this stage to limit war spending. Two of the party's leading candidates for the 2008 presidential nomination - Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York and Barack Obama of Illinois - are calling for "caps" on the military force deployed at the start of this month, about 132,000, before Bush announced his deployment of 21,500 additional troops.

But the Foreign Relations Committee defeated an attempt by Sen. Christopher J. Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, to add a troop cap to its resolution by a vote of 15-6 - with five Democrats and all 10 of the committee's Republicans opposing Dodd's call to cap troops at their levels as of Jan. 16.

"We must demonstrate we are prepared to lead on this issue, not simply sit back, fearful of taking positions most of us believe are in the interest of our country," Dodd said.

Sen. James Webb, a Virginia Democrat and a war critic who had delivered the party's response to the president's State of the Union address the night before, said, "This is not the place or the time" to set a cap on the number of U.S. troops in Iraq.

Some say the adopted resolution, which is silent on war spending, sends a dangerous message.

"The silence ... has serious repercussions for our troops and our enemies to be seriously misinterpreted," said Sen. Johnny Isakson, a Georgia Republican. "It sends a dangerous signal to be silent about whether we would or would not" cut spending.

While some Democrats say this resolution provides a unified voice of opposition to the president's war strategy, some complain the resolution falls far short of the action that Americans demanded when they voted in November to hand control of Congress to the Democrats.

"This is slow walking," said Sen. Russ Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat who opposed the original resolution authorizing military force in Iraq in 2002. "Because we are not taking strong enough action, we are not rising to the moment. ... We did not rise to the occasion in 2002."

Some critics call the resolution simply meaningless.

"This resolution is nonbinding," said freshman Sen. Bob Corker, a Tennessee Republican, opposing it. "It is going to have absolutely no effect on the administration - not one iota. ... In essence, we're not taking action at all."

Mark Silva writes for the Chicago Tribune.

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