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The Nation

Bush takes a back seat this round

House lawmakers gear up for debate on his troop buildup, but the president has said he'll ignore the resolution.

February 13, 2007|Noam N. Levey and Richard Simon | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — A month after President Bush announced plans to boost troop levels in Iraq, he will largely remain on the sidelines as the House begins the first major debate on the war since Democrats assumed control of Congress after the November election.

While Democratic leaders work to build Republican support for a short, symbolic resolution opposing the troop increase, the White House has eschewed a major public lobbying effort to get Republican lawmakers to stand behind the president.

And in his public statements, Bush has focused on other subjects, even as the resolution has consumed lawmakers on Capitol Hill over the last week.

The president said in an interview with C-SPAN on Monday that he doesn't plan to watch the House debate. "I've got a full day tomorrow. I mean, it's not as if the world stops when the Congress does their duty," he said. Besides, he added, "I already know what the debate is."

The presidential nonchalance is a notable departure from the active role the administration has previously played in guiding legislation -- and a marked contrast to its recent efforts to block a similar resolution in the Senate.

With Democrats in firm control of the House, Bush has little chance of derailing the resolution, which he has said he will ignore.

But the White House also appears increasingly unable to unite Republicans behind its Iraq strategy. Several Republicans have said they would back the House resolution. And as the debate begins this week, even GOP lawmakers who oppose the resolution plan to say little about the president or his administration, focusing instead on the dangers of failure in Iraq.

Just weeks ago, the president was far less detached from congressional debate of the war.

As he prepared last month to announce his plan to boost troop levels in Iraq by 21,500 to control sectarian violence, Bush invited lawmakers from both parties to the White House to talk to him and his top advisors.

And earlier this month, the White House worked closely with Senate Republican leaders to head off a Senate resolution criticizing the Bush plan.

That resolution is stalled amid partisan dispute over how it should be debated; on Monday a bipartisan group of senators urged that it be attached to a pending funding bill.

With a 31-vote majority in the House, the president's Democratic critics do not have to worry about the resolution getting stuck in their chamber.

The simple, two-sentence measure, formally introduced Monday, will come up for a vote Thursday or Friday after every member of the House has an opportunity to talk about it on the floor. The resolution notes that Congress "will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces" and concludes that Congress "disapproves" of the president's plans.

Democrats have very pointedly promoted the nonbinding measure as a direct challenge to the president, a theme that is sure to run through Democratic comments in the debate this week.

But there will probably be little praise for the president from the Republican side of the aisle.

While acknowledging that "mistakes were made," a set of talking points sent out Monday by Republican leaders to their members does not include a single clear endorsement of Bush's strategy.

Rather, they focus on putting Iraq in the context of the global war against terrorism, criticizing Democrats as weakening troop morale and challenging Democrats to cut off funding if they oppose the president.

On Monday, a group of Republicans sent a letter to leading Democratic war critics, calling on those critics -- if they "truly believe that the United States should withdraw our troops from Iraq" -- to press Democratic leaders to debate alternatives to the resolution.

"They ran on this issue. They ought to do something about it," said Rep. Tom Cole (R-Okla.), chairman of the National Republican Congressional Committee.

Several senior Democrats have said they eventually want to use funding restrictions to limit the deployment of additional troops and begin forcing a withdrawal.

Republican efforts to talk about something other than Bush come as the president's popularity continues to plummet.

A Gallup Poll this month found that 72% of respondents disapproved of the way the president was handling the war, tying the highest disapproval rate since the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

Among GOP lawmakers, there is growing nervousness about the administration, according to several Republican lawmakers and senior aides.

Rep. Walter B. Jones (R-N.C.) -- who broke with the White House over Iraq in 2005 and is the only Republican co-sponsoring the resolution -- said that last week's reports of a top Pentagon official inaccurately describing links between Al Qaeda and former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein in the run-up to the 2003 invasion only deepened the concern.

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