WASHINGTON — While President Bush on Tuesday defended his surge in Iraq and urged Congress to give it more time, Senate Democrats said time was up and floated a new plan to start withdrawing troops within four months.
The Democrats' new proposal would leave it up to Gen. David Petraeus, the military commander in Iraq, to decide how many American forces would remain in Iraq. It would limit their mission after May 1, 2008, to fighting al Qaida, protecting Americans and allies in Iraq, and training and equipping Iraqi forces.
The bill could come up for a vote by next week, but it was unclear if it would pass. Senate Republicans insisted on a rule that requires a 60-vote supermajority in the 100-member Senate, where Democrats control only 51 votes.
Most Republicans still support the president's strategy, although dissension is rising within GOP ranks. Six Republican senators back a weaker alternative that calls for a new Iraq strategy but wouldn't have the force of law or a clear date for withdrawal to begin.
Republican leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky said he'd demand 60-vote majorities on all Iraq amendments to a pending Senate defense-policy bill. That delayed a vote expected Tuesday on a measure to ensure that soldiers and Marines would get as much time back in the United States as they'd served overseas. Under the measure, Reserve and National Guard members could not be sent back to Iraq or Afghanistan for three years.
A vote on that measure, offered by Sen. James Webb, D-Va., could come as early as Wednesday.
Growing numbers of Senate Republicans are voicing frustration with Iraq.
"The tide has turned," said Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine. She opposed the surge but has voted in support of the president's policy. Snowe said she now favors binding legislation for a new strategy. What changed, she said, is that the Iraqi government has failed to meet any of its own benchmarks for a political compromise that might help end sectarian violence.
It's not clear that there would be 60 votes for any Iraq plan being discussed now in the Senate. But, Snowe said, "I can assure you in September there will be."
Snowe and Senate Democrats said Tuesday that it would be wrong to wait that long.
Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the surge had failed, and that since it began six months ago, nearly 600 Americans have been killed. The war is costing $10 billion per month.
Bush wants to postpone debate on Iraq until after mid-September, when Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador, will report on military and political developments. An interim report to Congress is expected Thursday.
In a speech in Cleveland, Bush acknowledged that this week's report would show little progress toward political reconciliation in Iraq.
"The Iraqis have got to do more," he said.
But, he said, Congress should wait for Petraeus' September report.
"That's what the American people expect," Bush told the Greater Cleveland Partnership, an economic development organization. "That's the way I'm going to play it as the commander in chief."
When Bush outlined the surge plan in January, he offered a hopeful vision of the progress he expected from Iraqi leaders: Iraq would take responsibility for security in all provinces by November, pass a bill to share oil revenues, hold provincial elections this year and pass laws that empower minority Sunnis.
Six months later, none of the benchmarks that Bush discussed has been accomplished. Administration officials concede that Iraqi security forces will not be ready to take over from U.S troops by November.
Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, has long argued that the pressure of an impending withdrawal of American forces would spur Iraqi politicians to act.
Levin and Sens. Jack Reed, D-R.I., and Gordon Smith, R-Ore., offered a plan Tuesday to start withdrawal of forces within four months. An unspecified number of troops would remain in Iraq indefinitely, but by April 30, 2008, their mission would be limited to targeted counterterrorism operations against al Qaida, protecting Americans and allies, and training and equipping Iraqi forces.
"There are no indications that the Iraqis intend to compromise without such pressure, and the best way to promote progress by September is to vote for our amendment in July," Levin said.
Reed said he met with Petraeus in Iraq over the weekend and that they agreed that the best way to instruct military leaders is to define their missions.
"If you have the appropriate missions, then the commanders on the ground will structure the forces appropriately," he said. "No one is advocating a precipitous withdrawal."
Meanwhile, Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., urged Bush to begin immediately bringing the war to an end. Speaking in Iowa, she said that if she wins the presidency she would demand a plan to start bringing troops home within the first two months of her administration.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., another presidential candidate, said that while Iraq remains dangerous, the military is making progress. He was there last week. He said that attacks in Anbar province are down to zero most days, most Sunni tribal leaders in Anbar support the fight against al Qaida, and that sectarian violence has fallen in Baghdad.