Republican Senators left town last week wounded and deeply fractured over immigration reform and the Iraq War, but they are charting a strategy that they hope will get them off the defensive and back on the attack for the final four weeks of the summer session.
When they return from the weeklong July Fourth recess, GOP leaders are hoping that beyond coalescing around a new strategy on Iraq, they can mount an offensive against Democrats on firebrand issues such as taxes, spending and stalled judicial nominations.
“Those are issues we know, for the most part, Republicans will be united around,” said a GOP leadership aide. “Immigration split both parties in the Senate. Now what we’re seeing is each side come together on what they stand for to try to be united.”
Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) added that “what Republicans need to figure out is what unifies us, not what divides us.” That, he said, means looking to rally support from the electorate and within their own ranks by homing in on those issues that define who they are as a party, such as by calling for stronger fiscal discipline and insisting on up-or-down votes on key court nominees.
The first big test of GOP unity will come next week when the Senate takes up the Defense Department authorization bill. Democrats have put Republicans on notice that they will force more votes on whether to end combat operations in Iraq as part of that debate.
Thune said GOP leaders would be pushing to keep defections on Iraq to a minimum and will encourage their rank-and-file Members to wait until September, when even President Bush has said he may rethink his controversial troop “surge” strategy. Many Republicans have said they are waiting to hear a scheduled Sept. 15 report on the surge from Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, before advocating any change in the direction of the war.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure to not get too antsy about this, not to overreact to the things that the Democrats might put on the floor,” Thune said. He added, “I think most Republicans are sort of focused on [September]. They’re willing to give this strategy at least that amount of time.”
And even though Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) made headlines last week by urging the president to rethink his strategy in Iraq now rather than waiting until September, Lugar said he was unlikely to vote for any of the Democratic amendments to force redeployments out of Iraq or set timelines for withdrawal.
“I’m not certain that legislation does that,” Lugar said Thursday. “It may be that if you’re committed to a change in foreign policy, you try to work, as I’m attempting to do, with ... the president or with others so the administration is able to make some announcements to make some changes that we [in Congress] can then support.”
He added, “All of these opportunities to offer benchmarks or deadlines are interesting as a way of venting emotion — I suppose, showing constituents that you’re alive and active — but maybe not consequential in terms of anything happening.”