Latest News

Bush, Congress poised for bitter battle over Iraq war

WASHINGTON—President Bush set Wednesday night for the unveiling of his new Iraq war plan, an announcement certain to touch off a bruising battle with Congress over his expected proposal to dispatch more U.S. troops to Iraq.

Democrats on Monday reiterated their pledge not to cut off money to ground troops, but they were considering a range of other ideas to counter the Bush plan, including cutting off funding for private contractors profiting from reconstruction efforts.

They also may vote on resolutions recommending that Bush demand measurable progress from the Iraqis or begin redeploying U.S. troops. Such resolutions failed in the previous Congress, but Democrats now have two factors working in their favor: majorities in the House of Representatives and Senate, and more Republicans than a year ago who might be willing to support a phased withdrawal.

At the White House, Bush and his advisers worked on a draft of Wednesday's speech and braced for a fight with Congress. The prime-time speech, expected to last about 25 minutes, will kick off an intensive White House effort intended to shore up support for the war. Recent polls have shown that 72 percent of Americans disapprove of the way Bush has handled Iraq.

Bush will promote his plan during a visit Thursday to Fort Benning, Ga., a massive training facility for the Army infantry.

Bush's package is expected to include an increase of perhaps 20,000 U.S. troops, a request for funding for a jobs-creation program, renewed diplomatic efforts to get more help from Iraq's Arab neighbors, and increased pressure on the Iraqi government to ease sectarian tensions.

Opponents of committing 20,000 or even twice that number of additional U.S. troops argue that such an escalation wouldn't be enough to pacify Iraq's capital city, let alone the whole country. Iraq's Shiite Muslim-dominated government has shown no interest in cracking down on Shiite militias, Iraq's Sunni neighbors have little interest in helping Iraqi Shiites, and economic aid would be wasted without better security, they argue.

"Public opinion and public support is a very important part of this," White House spokesman Tony Snow said of the plan. "This is going to be fairly complex, and it's going to take people a little bit of time to think through. And we will spend a lot of time talking about it."

Bush met with key Senate and House Republicans on Monday in what seemed to be an effort to shore up support within his party. But while most Republicans interviewed after the session said they generally supported the idea of more troops, some said they no longer were willing to support an open-ended commitment.

Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott, R-Miss., the No. 2 Republican in the Senate, said he wanted to see "a multi-faceted plan of which the surge can be a part, but I'm not going to endorse just that alone."

"I want to see the whole package, including ways to get the Iraqis to produce more results from their training, to get the militias under control," Lott said. "We should make it clear to the Iraqi government that they have to do more, and that we're not going to stay and provide them cover indefinitely."

Sen. Christopher "Kit" Bond, R-Mo., vice chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Bush didn't lay out a time frame or specify how many troops would be involved. But his account and that of Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, indicated that Bush intends to stress that Iraqis, not American forces, will take the lead in establishing security.

"The most important thing I heard him say was it represents a recommitment of Iraqi troops to take the lead and hold areas once they've been cleared," said Cornyn, a member of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

"According to the president, the Iraqis have bought in," Bond said.

Two key senators, Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., and Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, a Democrat-turned-independent, wrote a letter to Bush urging him to send more troops to Iraq—a counterpoint to a letter last week from Democratic leaders of the House and Senate that urged the president not to increase troop levels and instead to begin to withdraw.

"For far too long we have not had enough troops in Iraq to provide security," Graham and Lieberman wrote. "It is time to correct this mistake."

On Friday, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., left little doubt that Congress would take steps to block the plan if Bush insisted on adding troops in Iraq. But Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Monday that the only thing Democrats can realistically do "is to cut off money for the troops," a move he termed "highly unlikely."

Reid, however, said cutting funding to troops isn't the only option. "There are 100,000 contractors in Iraq. I have no qualms about cutting the money that Halliburton has made from the American taxpayer, and other such contractors," he said, referring to the company that was formerly headed by Vice President Dick Cheney.

Pelosi reiterated her pledge not to cut troop funding but indicated she wants to place some conditions on funding.

"If the president is proposing an escalation, we want to see a justification for the mission," she said. "And we want to know: What is the reasonable prospect for success? We must know what the ground truth is in Iraq before we lose any more lives, cost any more money."

Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., said he, too, was looking for a way to counter Bush's plan without jeopardizing the safety of U.S. troops. He said he has heard "no evidence that additional American troops would change the behavior of Iraqi sectarian politicians and make them start reining in violence by members of their religious groups."

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., said withholding funds for additional troops should be "on the table" along with a resolution calling for withdrawal within six months. "But I'm fearful that people will not take that approach," he said.

Some of the final decisions on Bush's new Iraq policy are only now being made after nearly two months of review and debate, suggesting that deep divisions remain among the president's top advisers.

Bush also will increase the number of U.S. government civilians working in Iraq by expanding so-called Provincial Reconstruction Teams, which advise Iraq's fledgling regional governments, according to a State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity because Bush's plan hasn't been made public yet.

As the president put the finishing touches on his speech, Democrats were gauging how they might counter whatever he proposes,

Reid said he'll huddle privately Tuesday with Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., to discuss what else they might do beyond a series of hearings and investigations they're already planning into Bush's Iraq policy.

Congressional scholar Norman J. Ornstein said Congress was unlikely to cut off war funding because it wouldn't want to endanger the troops and could be challenged in court.

Instead, he predicted that most of the action would be through hearings, where generals and others under oath will be "forced to admit what they believe—in many cases deep misgivings about the president's policy."

In the days and months after Bush unveils the plan, a "sizable corps of prominent Republicans" can be expected to express misgivings as well, Ornstein said.


(Drew Brown, Maria Recio, Dave Montgomery, Renee Schoof, Matt Stearns and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20070108 USIRAQ troops, 20070108 USIRAQ SURGE


Related stories from McClatchy DC