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Senate talks on Iraq take a new form

McCain's resolution of 'full support' is likely to be up against Warner's, which 'disagrees' with Bush's buildup plan.

February 02, 2007|Noam N. Levey and Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The shape of the Senate debate over President Bush's plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq came into clearer focus Thursday as Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz) and two other senators introduced a resolution to support the buildup.

After weeks of back-and-forth negotiations over resolutions, it appears likely the Senate debate over the 4-year-old war will pit McCain's resolution of "full support" against one introduced by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) that "disagrees" with the president's proposal.

But how that debate is likely to turn out became even murkier Thursday as lawmakers continued to mull the details of the two lengthy resolutions.

Two Democratic senators who oppose Bush's plan broke with their leaders and said they would not back Warner's measure, which was designed to unify opponents of the troop buildup.

And Republicans wrestled with the sharp divisions in their ranks exposed by the looming war debate next week. "The debate in my caucus has been very passionate on both sides," said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who has signed on to Warner's resolution. "Feelings are running high."

Seven GOP lawmakers have expressed support for Warner's resolution. Opponents of the buildup are trying to recruit seven or eight more Republicans to reach the 60 votes that would be needed to overcome a promised GOP filibuster.

And pressure is mounting on undecided Republican senators, particularly moderates and those running for reelection in 2008.

Thursday afternoon, Sens. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) and George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who have criticized the troop buildup but have not endorsed any critical resolution, uncharacteristically rushed past reporters and into the Senate chamber.

Meanwhile, McCain and other senators escalated their attacks on the Warner measure and its supporters.

"Where is the intellectual honesty if you think that you're sending young Americans into harm's way in a futile effort?" McCain asked. "I know if I felt that way, I would say, 'My resolution is a binding resolution that cuts off funding.' That's the intellectually honest approach."

McCain, a former naval aviator who spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam, unveiled his alternative resolution Thursday afternoon with co-sponsors Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) and Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.). Lieberman still caucuses with the Democrats.

Warner's measure is nonbinding and urges the president to consider alternatives to sending more U.S. troops into Baghdad to halt the sectarian fighting.

Wednesday evening, Warner and his co-sponsors specifically added language opposing any funding cutoff, in an effort to woo more Republicans. So far, no additional GOP senators have joined him.

Democratic leaders, including Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin of Michigan, have lined up behind the Warner resolution.

On Thursday, Sens. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.), who had been pushing an alternative resolution with Levin that was more critical of the White House plan, abandoned their measure and backed Warner's.

Even Moveon.org, an antiwar grass-roots organization, praised the Senate's move toward a vote on the Warner resolution, saying, "This is an important first step toward Congress blocking the escalation and stopping the war."

But Democratic hopes of holding their caucus together behind the Warner resolution were dashed when Sens. Russell D. Feingold (D-Wis.) and Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) announced they would vote against the measure.

"The Warner-Levin legislation does not explicitly oppose the escalation, [and] it doesn't contemplate the phased redeployment from Iraq," Dodd said.

He and Feingold advocate immediate steps to start withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq. Feingold proposed legislation Wednesday that would mandate a withdrawal from Iraq within six months after the bill is passed.

Other antiwar Democrats -- including Sens. Barbara Boxer of California and Barack Obama of Illinois -- said Thursday they were still reviewing the language in the eight-page Warner measure. California's other senator, Democrat Dianne Feinstein, said she would support it.

McCain and other GOP leaders meanwhile pushed forward with their drive to round up the undecided Republicans who could determine which resolution, if either, emerges from the Senate debate next week.

The McCain measure, which is also nonbinding, explicitly states that U.S. forces "should receive from Congress the full support necessary to carry out the United States mission in Iraq."

It does acknowledge past mistakes and lists 11 "benchmarks" for Iraqis, a nod to lawmakers who complain that the Bush administration is not demanding enough of the Iraqi government. These include deploying sufficient forces to help U.S. troops, disarming militias, spending more on reconstruction, and devising a plan to share oil profits between the nation's major sects.

The measure does not spell out any consequences should the government of Prime Minister Nouri Maliki fail to meet these goals. And it conspicuously does not set any timelines.

"The day you say, 'When you fail to do them by a date certain,' you might as well fold up the tent and go home because the enemy knows exactly what they have to do," Graham said.

Some senators and Middle East experts believe that without outlining specific consequences, the U.S. will never succeed in pushing Iraqi leaders to take the difficult political steps they have avoided for years.

But Senate Republican leaders have managed to prevent any new defections to the anti-buildup camp all week and were sounding defiant Thursday.

"I'm trying to get 60 votes for something other than Warner," said Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.), the ebullient No. 2 leader in the caucus.

noam.levey@latimes.com

nicole.gaouette@latimes.com

Times staff writer Richard Simon contributed to this report.

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