WASHINGTON — The White House on Sunday rejected a call by two leading Republican senators to submit plans to start redeploying U.S. troops from Iraq by year's end, saying that doing so would be premature before military commanders present a major progress report in September.
"They've done a useful service in indicating the kinds of things that we should be thinking about. But the time to begin that process is September," national security advisor Stephen J. Hadley said on ABC's "This Week." "And the opening shot really ought to be heard from the commanders on the ground who can make an assessment of where we are in our current strategy."
Hadley's appearances on four Sunday talk shows demonstrated the difficult task President Bush faces in trying to stem Republican defections on his Iraq policy after last week's congressionally mandated report, which showed that the Iraqi government had failed to make substantial progress on key political goals.
Most Senate Democrats support a plan by Sens. Carl Levin (D-Mich.) and Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to force Bush to start redeploying U.S. troops within 120 days of its enactment, with only a limited presence remaining after April 30, 2008. Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to move that proposal through the Senate, but more Republicans are publicly questioning Bush's Iraq policy as the violence continues after the troop buildup intended to halt it.
"I think we need a new strategy," Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said on CBS' "Face the Nation." "I think most senators do, and the country does, and I wouldn't be surprised if the president does."
In that environment, Hadley was careful not to be too critical of Sens. John W. Warner of Virginia and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana, respected Republicans on military and foreign affairs. They proposed legislation Friday that would require Bush to unveil a plan by Oct. 16 limiting the military mission in Iraq to protecting U.S. interests, training Iraqi forces, guarding the border and fighting terrorists.
Hadley noted that Warner and Lugar did not call for "an arbitrary withdrawal deadline or a withdrawal schedule."
"All they're simply saying is we need to think about now how we can transition to a new phase in Iraq when U.S. forces may have a different role," Hadley said on "Fox News Sunday." But asked if the White House "could live with" legislation to that effect, Hadley replied bluntly, "No."
Bush is set to receive a progress report in September from the top U.S. commander in Iraq, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker. Administration officials have suggested that the report will include options for new strategies.
Appearing on ABC, Lugar and Warner said they were not directly challenging the president.
Warner said he expected Bush to eventually come out with a modified strategy that would reflect "what's on the ground," and he and Lugar wanted the president to accelerate the process.
"We're trying to force the president to change the strategy now," Warner said. "I mean, they're in daily contact with Petraeus. It's not as if suddenly something burst upon the scene in September."
Prospects for the senators' proposal are complicated because of opposition from Democrats and from the White House. Senior Democratic aides have said that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) prefers the plan by Levin and Reed, which has binding withdrawal dates.
On Sunday, Lugar chastised Reid for that approach.
"We really don't have the power in Congress right now to bind the president to specific dates or specific policies," Lugar said, apart from cutting funding for troops, something he insisted Democrats and Republicans "are not prepared to do."
Reed said on C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" show that he felt Petraeus was ready to propose a new policy before September.
"I got the impression from Gen. Petraeus that he wasn't waiting," said Reed, who was in Iraq last weekend. "Now he might be overruled by people in the White House and, you know, wait until September. But he seemed very eager to come forward as quickly as possible with a new direction and policy."
Reed said he and Levin would introduce their legislation as early as today. Calling the prospects of anything changing by September "very bleak indeed," Reed said, "I don't think we should have to wait."
Bush on Thursday appealed to lawmakers to give the 28,500 additional troops more time as he issued the Iraq status report to Congress.
Hadley said Sunday that the report showed the Iraqis were making progress in some areas, such as forming an election commission and starting the process to amend the country's constitution. The Bush administration is pressuring the parliament to cancel a month-long break in August, and Hadley said the lawmakers had agreed to work six days a week through the end of July to try to resolve power-sharing and other issues.