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New Congress leery of Bush's Iraq plans

A troop increase doesn't sit well with lawmakers from either party, and they also complain of being kept in the dark.

January 05, 2007|Noam N. Levey | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As President Bush prepares a major new initiative for Iraq, he confronts a wary and distrustful new Congress eager for solutions but unconvinced the administration can chart a successful exit from the war.

The new Democratic majorities in the House and Senate are reluctant to assume responsibility for the war, leaving unclear Congress' willingness to block any troop escalation or to compel Bush to change strategy.

As lawmakers convened Thursday, the misgivings highlighted how difficult it will be for the president to achieve anything close to consensus as he plots a new course in Iraq.

Democrats and Republicans voiced deep reservations about any plan that would send more troops to Iraq.

They also complained about how little they knew of the president's plans, warning that the lack of information further impeded congressional support.

"The president will need strong friends," said Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee. Complaining that he had heard nothing from Bush, he added: "There need to be some informed persons if there is to be support for the president's proposal.... You need people on the takeoff if they are going to be there on the landing."

Next week, Bush is expected to unveil a new Iraq plan that would feature at least a temporary increase in troop levels in an effort to control sectarian violence.

Troop increases have been endorsed by a few lawmakers, including Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.).

But such a proposal is certain to be fiercely opposed by most Democrats.

For months, the party's leaders have been calling for the president to embrace various scenarios that would start the withdrawal of troops. On Thursday, they reiterated their views.

"The president's new plan must ensure the Iraqis take responsibility for their own future," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said on the chamber's floor as he assumed his new post.

The plan also "must remove our troops from a dangerous civil war," he said.

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), new chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he would reintroduce a resolution calling for a phased withdrawal of troops starting this year unless Bush sets a timetable for removing them from Iraq.

A similar move sponsored by Levin and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) failed last year.

Levin -- who is one of five Democratic committee leaders in the Senate and House who plan hearings this month that are expected to spotlight criticisms of the administration's handling of the war -- said Thursday that any temporary increase in troops must include conditions on the Iraqi government.

"You could condition a surge [in troops] on the Iraqis actually meeting political milestones" that signify a functioning government, Levin said.

Perhaps most ominously for Bush, it is not just Democrats who are expressing concern about what he may announce.

Many Republicans, who until recently have overwhelmingly backed his foreign policy, fretted that the administration's plans to significantly reduce sectarian violence in Iraq remained unclear.

"We need to know what the mission is and what it will take to do the mission," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, a Texas Republican close to the president.

A few months ago, Hutchison called for more troops in Iraq; on Thursday, she said she was unsure that would be the wisest course.

"This is a hard call right now," said Hutchison, who added that she had not had any conversations with the White House about Bush's announcement.

Sen. John E. Sununu (R-N.H.) said any troop increase would have to be accompanied by a political plan to advance reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis.

If the new strategy "is going to be well-received by both Republicans and Democrats, there has to be substance and objectives" that advance that goal, he said.

Some Republicans appear unwilling to accept troop increases under any conditions.

"Baghdad needs reconciliation between Shiites and Sunnis. It doesn't need more Americans in the cross hairs," said Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, who recently visited Iraq and who is to seek reelection in 2008.

Five to 10 GOP senators are wavering in their support for any White House initiative to boost troop levels, said an aide to a senior Republican lawmaker. The aide requested anonymity when discussing the opinions of the senators.

Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), who also is up for reelection next year, said that on a recent trip to Iraq, an American general told her confidentially that a jobs program for Iraqis would be more effective in reducing violence than an increase in U.S. troop levels.

The White House has begun to reach out to some lawmakers, including Coleman and Sununu; they said they had been invited to the White House today.

Other lawmakers have similar meetings scheduled Monday, said Senate Assistant Minority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).

"We're going to have some more consultation," Lott said, declining to discuss any details.

Iowa Republican Sen. Charles E. Grassley, who said he had not heard anything from the White House yet, said Bush needed to reach out to build support for a revised policy.

"It will be foolhardy for the president to come up with a new plan and not involve Congress," Grassley said.

noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writer Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

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