WASHINGTON—Top Democrats in Congress left a White House meeting with President Bush on Friday frustrated over what they perceived as his reluctance to embrace major recommendations from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.
Democrats stressed to Bush in separate meetings the dire need for the administration to revamp its Iraq policy, but they don't expect him to embrace all 79 recommendations made this week by the panel, which was chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind.
Bush said he talked about "the need for a new way forward in Iraq" in his morning session with leaders from both parties and chambers of Congress, "and we talked about the need to work together on this important subject."
But some Democrats came away unconvinced that major changes were coming.
"I just didn't feel there today, the president in his words or his demeanor, that he is going to do anything right away to change things drastically," Senate Majority Leader-elect Harry Reid, D-Nev., said following the Oval Office meeting. "He is tepid in what he talks about doing. Someone has to get the message to this man that there have to be significant changes."
Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.
Bush said that "in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America," recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism."
Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now—work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.
Bush, Durbin said, "reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response" and emphasized that he is "the commander in chief."
Bush had a friendlier afternoon meeting with leaders from the Blue Dog Coalition, a group of 44 conservative House Democrats united primarily on fiscal conservatism. Bush apparently was feeling them out to see if their political agenda could dovetail with his. But even they stressed that they expect to see him revamp Iraq policy.
"Obviously, he was most passionate in defending his position on Iraq," said Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark. "But we made it clear to him that the American people are ready for a new direction in Iraq. I think he's open to that. Maybe not all 79, but I think you'll see some of the recommendations from the Iraq Study Group implemented in the coming months."
Bush has been cool to some of the report's main recommendations. He's said he won't deal with Iran until it verifiably suspends its nuclear enrichment program and won't sit down with Syria until it stays out of Lebanon's political affairs and prevents the flow of weapons and cash to insurgents in Iraq.
And Bush has stressed many times that U.S. troops will stay in Iraq until they successfully complete their mission.
Bush's reluctance to embrace the group's report may be reinforced by leading conservatives' strong opposition to it. The conservatives, who are important to his political base, particularly objected to the recommendation for direct talks with Iran and Syria.
"Insult is added to injury with the absurdity that Iran and Syria then become members of something called the Iraq Support Group," said Bill Bennett, a leading conservative moralist.
Dan Schnur, a Republican strategist in California, said the conservative reaction "may give the White House a little bit more political security to not embrace the entire report. That would have been much harder to do had there been broader bipartisan support for the panel's recommendations."
Yet the conservatives' reaction is out of step with that of most Americans. Dissatisfaction with Bush's handing of Iraq has reached an all-time high of 71 percent, according to a new AP-Ipsos poll. A strong majority favors withdrawal of U.S. troops, with 60 percent favoring a six-month deadline.
In that environment, if Bush and conservatives insist on essentially staying the course in Iraq, they risk marginalizing themselves from mainstream opinion. That could be politically hazardous for Republicans in the 2008 presidential campaign, which begins in earnest 13 months from now.
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Steven Thomma contributed to this report.)
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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