Defense Budget Amendment May Bring Pullout

The Senate is considering a series of amendments to the 2008 Defense budget that could set in motion a large-scale troop drawdown. By the end of this week, the White House is scheduled to deliver a report to Congress assessing the early impact of the President's new Iraq strategy.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.

JOHN YDSTIE, host:

And sitting in for Steve Inskeep, who's on vacation, I'm John Ydstie.

When historians look back on the Iraq war, this week may very well stand out as a key turning point. The Senate is considering a series of amendments to the 2008 defense budget that could set in motion a large-scale troop drawdown. And by the end of this week, the White House is scheduled to deliver a report to Congress assessing the early impact of the president's new Iraq strategy.

NPR's Guy Raz reports.

GUY RAZ: Just how important is this week for the future of the president's Iraq policy? Well, important enough for Defense Secretary Robert Gates to cancel an official trip to Latin America. He made the decision just hours before his plane was supposed to leave. Now, Gates wasn't available to explain what was going through his mind, so I went down the list of former defense secretaries to find out and one of them, Mel Laird, who was Nixon's Pentagon chief, answered the phone.

(Soundbite of phone ringing)

Mr. MEL LAIRD (Former U.S. Defense Secretary): Hello.

RAZ: Hi. Is it Secretary Laird?

Mr. LAIRD: Yes.

RAZ: Hi. This is Guy Raz from National Public Radio. Do you have a quick moment for an interview?

Mr. LAIRD: When do you want to do that?

RAZ: If you can do it now, it would be great.

Mr. LAIRD: Well, have you got a tape recorder there?

RAZ: Sure.

Mr. LAIRD: Well, I can't do it right now. I got people here for lunch. Give me your number.

RAZ: Now, he did call back, but you'll have to wait till the end of the story to hear what he said. But back to Gates for the moment. The reason why he stayed in Washington was because senators like Ohio Republican George Voinovich and New Mexico Republican Pete Domenici and Indiana Republican Richard Lugar are making the White House very jittery. They've all broken ranks with the administration over Iraq. Here's what Lugar said recently.

Senator RICHARD LUGAR (Republican, Indiana): A course change should happen now while there is still some possibility of constructing a sustainable bipartisan strategy in Iraq.

RAZ: The beginning of a bipartisan strategy for Iraq is what could start to happen this week, and it could all end with Congress snatching the Iraq policy out of the administration's hands.

Mr. KURT CAMPBELL (Center for a New American Security): I think what we're seeing is a shifting in focus and power away from one end of Pennsylvania Avenue to the other.

RAZ: This is Kurt Campbell. He's a former senior Pentagon official. He now runs the Center for a New American Security. Campbell is watching a lot of C-SPAN this week because the Senate is spending a lot of time debating Iraq this week. The debate is supposed to be about the Pentagon's budget for next year. But what it's really about are the amendments on Iraq. Senators are proposing literally dozens of amendments that could be attached to the budget - amendments that limit the time troops can be deployed. There's one that sets the clock to start pulling most troops out by next year, and there's another that will declare the surge strategy a failure.

Senator CARL LEVIN (Democrat, Michigan): The American people gave us a mandate, and it's a mandate which we readily accept as being essential for the well-being of our nation.

RAZ: This is Michigan Democrat Carl Levin, who heads up the Senate's Armed Services Committee. He spoke to NPR a few days ago. According to senior officials on Capitol Hill - all of whom spoke to NPR in exchange for anonymity - Republicans in both the House and the Senate are starting to talk about working around the White House and directly with the Pentagon and with Secretary Gates.

The sense on Capitol Hill is that Gates isn't a fan of keeping the surge strategy in place for much longer. One senior Hill official told me, quote, "Republicans may have to sacrifice the president and force a change in Iraq in order to soften the expected blow in the upcoming elections," which takes us back to Mel Laird - a man often compared to Secretary Robert Gates as a kind of moderating voice in the president's inner circle. It was Laird who set in motion the withdrawal of U.S. troops from Vietnam. So I asked him how he would handle Iraq policy.

Mr. LAIRD: Well, if I were secretary of defense today, first I'd get the White House out of it. And I would start announcing a program making some reduction of forces in Iraq, and we wouldn't have any more surges.

RAZ: Which is a plan that many in Washington are already calling a foregone conclusion.

Guy Raz, NPR News, Washington.

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