Senate GOP Seeks Halfway House on Iraq

One by one, Senate Republicans are leaving the ranks of lockstep party loyalty and seeking their own paths on Iraq. But how far are they prepared to stray?

So far at least, the key voices of the party speak of finding a new direction, pressing the Iraqis and speeding a drawdown of U.S. forces. But in the next breath, they denounce the timetables and deadlines and funding cutoffs proposed by Democrats.

Rather than crossing the divide on this most divisive of issues, they seem to be searching for a place between the extremes. They hope war-weary constituents will notice the move, but not consider these incumbents "soft on terror" — or guilty of abandoning U.S. troops in the field.

It's a narrow needle to thread, but an increasing number of Republicans clearly consider it a matter of political life and death. Most of the Republicans moving into this policy halfway house on Iraq are facing home-state voters in 2008 and reading polls that spell trouble.

Some of them have been vocal for months on the subject, including John Sununu of New Hampshire, Susan Collins of Maine, Gordon Smith of Oregon and Norm Coleman of Minnesota. Polls show all four to be vulnerable.

More recently, we have also heard dissent from such veterans as John Warner of Virginia and Pete Domenici of New Mexico, two longtime committee chairs with 64 years of seniority between them. An effort to embrace the ideas of the Iraq Study Group, including a March 2008 target date for withdrawing U.S. combat troops, was co-sponsored by Republican Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a party mainstay who served two terms as governor and ran for president twice.

Warner, Domenici and Alexander are all on the ballot next year, too. Normally, each might regard re-election as secure. Domenici has won six terms in New Mexico, the last four with an average of 69 percent of the vote. But right now, even he seems to be running scared, worried that anti-war sentiment in his state could be enough to cost him his job.

He's not alone. In Virginia, Warner just watched his Republican colleague, George Allen, lose to an anti-war Democrat last fall. And Alexander, who won with 54 percent in 2002, is working hard to avoid a potentially threatening challenge in 2008.

All these candidates sense a national mood shift, one they can feel on their home ground. That's why the scramble for a new posture, a new strategy or at least a new language on the dominant issue driving dissatisfaction back home.

Their search has been blessed with timely political cover, thanks to a remarkable floor speech by Richard Lugar, the six-term veteran from Indiana who is the GOP's senior spokesman on foreign policy. Lugar had offered the White House his skeptical views on Iraq for some months, but withheld them from public consumption until a fateful Monday night in June.

Lugar is not known for riveting rhetoric. But his speech had all the authority of his many years as chairman of Senate Foreign Relations. And he is one Republican who cannot be accused of electoral self-preservation, having won a new six-year term last fall (with no Democratic opposition).

The White House has yet to offer a rebuttal to Lugar's doubts. In his Fourth of July speech to Air National Guard families in West Virginia, President Bush said victory in Iraq "will require more patience, more courage and more sacrifice."

That line, with its distant echo of Winston Churchill's "blood, sweat and tears" speech, may inspire the inner White House circle and its most committed supporters. But it no longer entrances most incumbent senators.

That's why few Republican voices were raised against Lugar's strikingly downbeat assessment of the war. And it's why so many GOP stalwarts now want to move on past Iraq. The trick is to find just the right formula — the right mix of standing up and standing down — to sound responsive while still sounding Republican.

Can Lugar, Warner, Domenici and other lions of the Senate GOP lead their pride to safer ground?

We should know soon. As Congress returns from its Fourth of July recess, the Senate will take up its annual bill reauthorizing the programs of the Pentagon — including the war in Iraq. Votes on amendments to this bill will give Republicans who want to step out of line myriad opportunities to do so.

All eyes will be on the 10 to 15 Republicans who have signaled — with varying degrees of visibility — their desire to be more independent. Most or all of them will need to depart from the party line if the Democrats are to muster the 60 votes they need to end filibuster threats and pass meaningful changes in policy.

In the first six months of Democratic "control" in the Senate, there have not been nearly that many votes for even the mildest anti-war measures. When President Bush vetoed an earlier effort to set a soft timetable for policy change in Iraq, there was no chance of an override.

But this summer, a sense of futility has metastasized in the Senate. The weight of the war has seemed to grow unbearable.

So how many Republicans are really ready to shed that weight? And how far are they prepared to go?

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