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Democrats united against troop buildup

Bush's plan for Iraq fractures his own party. Foes urge withdrawal.

January 11, 2007|Noam N. Levey and Nicole Gaouette | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — President Bush's plan to send additional troops to Iraq has further united Democrats on Capitol Hill, who nearly unanimously condemned the president's proposals Wednesday night.

Republicans, meanwhile, have splintered in the face of widespread popular discontent over the war and Bush's plans to escalate it.

The congressional reaction Wednesday to the president's prime-time television address underscored how dramatically Bush's proposal has changed the political dynamic in Washington less than a week after Democrats assumed control of the House and Senate.

Emboldened Democrats, who for years struggled to find common ground in challenging the White House, have found a target in the plan and are coalescing around the demand that troops be withdrawn.

And once-united Republicans now face an unpleasant choice: Stand behind a deeply unpopular troop buildup or take on the head of their party.

"There is a lot of anxiety and heartburn here," Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.) said outside the House chamber, noting the conflicted feelings of many GOP lawmakers toward Bush. "He's our guy. No one wants to go against our guy. And he's the commander in chief and the guy who campaigned for all of us. But he is Iraq."

LaHood and many Republicans stood by the president Wednesday, praising Bush for his commitment to reducing the sectarian strife in Iraq.

"The president should be commended for adapting to the reality on the ground in Iraq," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.). "And although the new plan is not without risk, it provides the best chance for helping the Iraqi people form a country that can defend itself and is an ally in the war on terror."

But McConnell does not head a united front.

A number of Republican senators expressed deep reservations about the president's proposals Wednesday.

"I want real evidence that a potential surge in troops will do more good than harm and will not exacerbate the existing violence in Iraq," said Sen. George V. Voinovich (R-Ohio), who was invited to the White House to discuss the plan. "I am skeptical."

Other GOP dissenters include Sens. Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins of Maine, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon and Sam Brownback of Kansas, a presidential candidate who once staunchly supported Bush's foreign policy.

Continuing their strident criticism of the Bush administration's war strategy, Smith called the plan a "hail Mary pass" and Hagel said it was "dangerously wrongheaded."

Also withholding support was Georgia Republican Rep. Jack Kingston, whose district is the home of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, which has served two tours in Iraq.

Democrats, by contrast, rallied Wednesday in vigorous opposition to the plan, taking to the floors of the House and Senate and stepping before television cameras to condemn the president.

"There are no timelines, no real goals.... I was very disappointed," California Sen. Dianne Feinstein said on CNN. "It is an escalation. And I'm hard-pressed to see how we come out of that kind of escalation as victors."

Feinstein and other Democrats have voiced increasing alarm about sending more troops into the middle of a burgeoning civil war that they say can only be quelled by Iraqis themselves.

Connecticut Sen. Joe Lieberman, who ran as an independent last year but still caucuses with the Democrats, was a lonely supporter of the president, whom he praised for pushing a "correct and courageous course."

"It is a dangerous illusion to believe that we can depart Iraq and the inevitable killing fields, and terrorist violence will not follow us in retreat, even to our own shores," Lieberman said.

The war continues to pose difficulties for Democrats.

The party's plans to focus on a 100-hour domestic agenda packed with popular measures such as ethics reform and a minimum wage increase were overshadowed by the debate over Bush's much-anticipated Iraq speech.

And Democrats, who rode to power on voter discontent with the war, are being forced to articulate a real strategy to match their rhetoric.

But Bush's plan appears to have galvanized Democrats -- who just last summer were put on the defensive by Republicans who induced nearly a quarter of the House Democrats to back a GOP resolution expressing support for Bush's war policies.

Wednesday, House and Senate leaders were confidently gearing up to introduce resolutions opposing the president's plans.

"My bet is that if an up-or-down vote happened on the Senate floor on whether we should send a significantly increased number of troops, that that vote would be overwhelmingly against sending the troops, and a significant number of Republicans would vote not to send more troops to Iraq," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.), who helped quarterback Senate Democrats to their November election success.

Meanwhile, Massachusetts Democrats Sen. Edward M. Kennedy and Rep. Edward J. Markey were lining up co-spon sors for their bills, which would go even further and cut off funds for an Iraq troop buildup.

Among their supporters are Sens. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and John F. Kerry (D-Mass.).

"Last year ... there was some squeamishness about the war," said Kerry, who pushed an unsuccessful measure last spring to require a troop withdrawal. "Now there is a unanimity in our caucus."


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