RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
All this week, the Senate has been debating what the U.S. role in Iraq should be. At least eight Republican lawmakers have said they would support at least one of the amendments that Senate has drafted to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq in the next 120 days. The White House is urging GOP senators to wait until September for General Petraeus's report on the troop surge. Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday voiced his opposition to such a compromise.
Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada; Senate Majority Leader): Waiting until September is not the answer. Holding out hope, blind hope, blind trust that progress will appear out of thin air for reasons no one really is able to articulate, that's not the answer.
MONTAGNE: Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. One of those Republican lawmakers calling for change now is Tennessee Senator Lamar Alexander. Along with Colorado Democratic Senator Ken Salazar, he's co-sponsoring legislation based on the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. And he joins us now on the line.
Good morning, Senator.
Senator LAMAR ALEXANDER (Republican, Tennessee): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: Now, as we said, your amendment is based on the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, recommendations issued last December. Haven't events on the ground overtaken their usefulness? For instance, that report places heavy emphasis on a strong central government. There is talk now of a more decentralized approach.
Sen. ALEXANDER: That's true. There have been some changes but it's like watching a movie - you walk in after 15 minutes or you walk in after 30 minutes, it's the same movie, it's the same cast of characters, it's the same story. Congressman Lee Hamilton, who was one of the co-chairs, along with former Secretary of State Jim Baker, of this distinguished group that spent nine months studying this, said yesterday that its opinions in December were as relevant as they are today.
MONTAGNE: Well, among other things, that proposal from the Iraq Study Group would shift the mission of U.S. forces from combat to training Iraqi forces. Beyond possible issues with that, how soon would that mean fewer U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq?
Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, the Study Group said in December that if we move from a combat mission to a role of support training and equipping in Iraq that it would take about a year and that the end result would be about half the number of troops on the ground. There would still be troops there for force support, for search and rescue, special operations forces to go after al-Qaida. So we would still have a significant force and we'd have a long-term but limited role in Iraq.
MONTAGNE: Now, the Iraq Study Group provided target dates by which the Iraqi government has to meet certain benchmarks - an oil law, for instance, national reconciliation. Based on your proposal, how long does the Iraqi government have to meet those goals?
Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, we adopt exactly the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. And we ask the president then to develop a plan based on those recommendations. So things will change and the Iraq Study Group's and our legislation specifically said that all of this was subject to developments on the ground.
What we're trying to do is to get a bipartisan consensus that the president can join with us on, so we can say to our troops and the rest of the world that we have - we agree on what we're doing in Iraq. We lecture Baghdad a lot about not coming up with a political consensus. We think we ought to have one of our own. And the Iraq Study Group, which was unanimous, is the best basis for it.
MONTAGNE: Let's get back to that question of waiting until September before making a final judgment about how effective the troop increase is or has been at that point. You and other Republicans met yesterday with National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley. What did you all tell him?
Sen. ALEXANDER: What I said was that, Steve, if the president wants to stay in Iraq, even on a limited basis, he needs broader support than he has today. And the Iraq Study Group report offers bipartisan support outside of the Senate. And we have 13 senators, equally of both parties, with one more Democrat than Republican, who support it here. Pass our legislation, you'll have it on your desk by September, and then sit down with General Petraeus and the others, General Jones, and make your report to Congress in 90 days. Otherwise, you may have a choice of get in or get out when we get to September.
MONTAGNE: You know, the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, Lee Hamilton, was on our program yesterday. He said at that time that to succeed in Iraq the leadership in this country - Congress and the President - needs to come together. That's what you're talking about, effectively. But realistically, is this possible at this point?
Sen. ALEXANDER: Well, it has to be possible. I mean it's very ironic that here we are the oldest democracy and we sit here lecturing the youngest democracy, Iraq, because they can't come up with a political consensus, yet we haven't done it ourselves. I think the people expect us to stop shouting at one another, stop taking positions, and look for common ground. And I think the Iraq Study Group provides that. If they could recommend this unanimously -people from the Reagan, the Clinton, the first Bush administration, Justice Sandra Day O'Connor - after nine months of study, surely 60 percent of us can agree with it.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much. Lamar Alexander is a Republican senator from Tennessee
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