Positions Hardening on Iraq

Posted September 11, 2007 at 6:34pm

Far from inspiring bipartisan solutions to the Iraq War, dueling Senate hearings Tuesday only intensified party divisions on the issue and cast even more doubts on the ability of the chamber’s Democrats to garner a filibuster-proof majority for any Iraq withdrawal measure they take up next week.

“My sense is that the general has been so successful in his testimony that positions have hardened that existed in the summer,” Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said of his fellow Republicans’ reaction to the much-ballyhooed testimony of the U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus.

Indeed, Senators’ questions for Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker — who spent their second full day testifying on Capitol Hill on Tuesday — were largely predictable, with Democrats scolding the duo for asking for more patience to allow the president’s “surge” strategy to work and Republicans praising their resolve to continue the fight.

Asked if Senators had made up their minds about Iraq before hearing from Petraeus and Crocker this week, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) said, “Pretty much.”

Despite intensive questioning from both the Senate Foreign Relations and Armed Services panels, the only apparent crack in the unified veneer of the two witnesses came when Sen. John Warner (R-Va.) asked Petraeus if — knowing that his recommendations would result in more U.S. casualties, more strain on the military and more strain on the American people — he believes the recommended strategy “is making America safer.”

Petraeus’ answer was carefully nuanced: “I believe that this is indeed the best course of action to achieve our objective in Iraq. … I have tried to focus on what I think a commander is supposed to do, which is to determine the best recommendations to achieve the objectives of the policy from which his mission is derived.”

Warner, who has gradually ratcheted up his criticism of the war and recently announced his retirement from the Senate, pressed Petraeus and Crocker on their assertion that Iraqis were achieving political and sectarian settlements on the local and tribal level even though such reconciliation appeared out of the national government’s reach.

Warner said it was “too early to put much emphasis” on local achievements because “we’ve got to have … top down not bottom up reconciliation.”

Beyond that exchange, Petraeus and Crocker stuck to the script that they have seen progress in making Iraq safer but need more time to give Iraqi politicians the opportunity to reach a number of contentious political settlements with different ethnic and religious groups in the country. Petraeus also reiterated his recommendation that the president begin drawing down a modest number of troops this year, ultimately bringing the troop level down from the 160,000-strong currently in place to its “pre-surge” level of roughly 120,000 by next summer.

But Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), who has led the Senate Democrats’ efforts to refocus the Iraq strategy and start bringing the bulk of U.S. troops home, said Petraeus’ proposal “does not change our course in Iraq” and is “an illusion of change.”

On the flip side, Armed Services ranking member John McCain (R-Ariz.), a presidential candidate, lauded the progress he said was created by Bush’s decision earlier this year to send more troops to Iraq.

“We’re getting it right because we finally have in place a strategy that can succeed,” McCain said.

With the rhetorical playing field changing little from the positions both parties have staked out over the past eight months, Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) denied that Democrats’ desire to force a change in mission and the withdrawal of troops from Iraq also had hardened, but he acknowledged that Petraeus and Crocker’s upbeat assessment was unlikely to be heeded by the majority.

“I haven’t seen any change in intensity. I think people feel just as intense now as they did before,” Durbin said.

Durbin said Democrats would likely offer a number of different Iraq-related proposals and that one would attempt to ensure that troop levels next summer were far below Petraeus’ estimates of 120,000-130,000.

Durbin said Democrats were in talks with a number of Republicans, whom he would not name, and that they were trying to craft a proposal that could garner the 60 votes needed to beat back a certain filibuster attempt by war boosters.

Smith, however, named himself as a participant in talks with Levin on an effort to revive an earlier Levin proposal that would set a date by which the administration would have to begin a transition from a combat force to simply securing American interests in Iraq and combating foreign terrorists.

Additionally, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) exited a meeting with the president Tuesday and told reporters that he was hoping to pick up three new Republican votes next week on a plan to redefine the mission in Iraq, but Reid needs at least six to overcome a threatened filibuster by Republican war supporters.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) also entered the fray, suggesting he was working on a proposal that would give the public “an objective measure to get us through what will be some dark days” of more sectarian and terrorist violence and more U.S. casualties.

Coleman said his proposal might give Americans a sense of the long-term engagement the United States will have in the region.

“I think it may say … within three years we’ll have half our troops withdrawn,” he explained. He said Congress “should be committing to something because, if the course of progress isn’t what we expect, then why are we staying there?”

During the Foreign Relations hearing, Coleman told Petraeus and Crocker, “I think we need something more than ‘Give us more time, so we can come back in the fall’” of 2008.

Meanwhile, Durbin said Senate Democrats plan to use a rare procedure to bring up amendments on Iraq policy during next week’s expected floor debate on the fiscal 2008 Defense authorization bill.

Democrats will present several amendments on Iraq via “a separate legislative vehicle,” so they will not be attached to the bill, Durbin said. This will allow each amendment to be treated as a separate issue but, if passed, they would be attached to the bill.

“It’s rare, but it’s been done before,” Durbin said.

In addition, Democrats will lay out an amendment that had previously been put forward by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) that would mandate more time at home before active-duty military personnel are redeployed back to combat zones.

The Senate debated that measure in July, but when it came time to vote, the amendment fell four votes short of the 60 votes needed to move to an up-or-down vote.

Jennifer Bendery of CongressNow contributed to this report.