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Handful of senators still agonizing over Iraq vote

WASHINGTON—For Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and many other senators, the coming week looms as one of the most agonizing of their careers as they debate whether to vote against President Bush's war in Iraq.

"It's something that is consuming my thoughts," said Murkowski, a Republican who's up for re-election in 2008, and whose home-state Army unit from Fort Richardson has suffered ghastly losses recently.

"It's the last thing that I think about at night, the first thing I think about in the morning."

In the debate that begins Monday, the choice for some senators is clear: Either America must stay the course in Iraq to prevent a wider war in the Middle East, or it's time to cut off the money or the war's authorization to force Bush to bring the troops home.

But for the majority of lawmakers in the middle—Democrats and Republicans who fear that the president's 21,500-troop buildup won't stop a civil war but also worry about the consequences of withdrawing—deciding how to phrase their opposition and go on record with it is gut-wrenching.

"This will serve as the first real debate on the president's flawed Iraq-war policy since the war began nearly four years ago," said Senate Majority Harry Reid, D-Nev.

Complicating the debate are several last-minute findings:

_A new National Intelligence Estimate released Friday found that political stability in Iraq is probably out of reach for at least 18 months, that U.S. withdrawal in that time frame would worsen the violence and that a civil war has overtaken the insurgency as the biggest source of violence.

_The Congressional Budget Office said the president's plan to send more troops also could require sending another 28,000 support personnel, and could cost much more than the original estimate. Defense Secretary Robert Gates challenged those conclusions.

_The nonpartisan Congressional Research Service told lawmakers they have "wide latitude" under the Constitution to restrict the war. "Congress' power of appropriations gives it ample power to supply or withhold resources even if the president deems them necessary to carry out planned military operations," its report said.

The Senate Democratic leadership has chosen a bipartisan resolution drafted by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., as the vehicle for the debate. It opposes Bush's plan but supports bolstering U.S. troops who are hunting for al-Qaida in Anbar province. It also says, to the dismay of many Democrats, that it won't cut off war funds.

Of Senate Democrats who are exploring presidential runs, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York plans to support it. So does Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden of Delaware. Barack Obama of Illinois said Friday that he was still deciding. Christopher Dodd, of Connecticut, opposes it but said he wouldn't block it from a vote.

Among Senate Republicans who are eyeing the presidency, John McCain of Arizona opposes Warner's plan and has offered a competing proposal. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska is co-sponsoring Warner's resolution and Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., supports it.

Warner's "sense of the Senate" resolution is nonbinding, meaning it has no force of law. But Democratic leaders say it's only a first step. If they can pass it, they say, they'll move on soon to stronger steps, such as attaching conditions to war spending or revoking the 2002 authorization for use of force.

The House of Representatives will wait for the Senate to vote before acting. Liberal House Democrats want something far more critical than Warner's language, even binding legislation.

Advocates say that even a nonbinding resolution would add pressure on the president by demonstrating the breadth of opposition to his policy. Critics such as McCain say it could hurt troops' morale and boost insurgents.

Opponents hope to vote on alternative measures next week, although none appears likely to pass. McCain's would promise the president and troops whatever resources they need but would call on the Iraqi government to meet 11 benchmarks.

He characterized Warner's plan as "foolishness" and "absolutely Orwellian." "Where is the intellectual honesty" in saying you oppose the buildup but support the troops who compose it, he asked. He challenged war opponents to pass something binding.

Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., a war opponent, essentially agrees. He's introduced legislation to cut off money for most U.S. military operations in Iraq within six months. But he lacks backing from his party's leaders.

"This is a sideshow, what's going on right now," Feingold said. "The issue is whether or not we stop this war, not whether or not we simply have a resolution about the escalation. It's time to get to the main event."

Christopher H. Foreman Jr., a professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, said a nonbinding vote did have political weight. It tells Americans who oppose the troop increase, "You have a point, and lots of significant politicians and policy players agree with you," he said.

In addition, Foreman said, it's "the closest thing you get to a motion of no-confidence" in Bush. "The only things that you can do beyond this, of course, are censure and impeachment."

While Warner's plan appears to have bipartisan support, it's not clear whether it can secure the 60 votes that are necessary to fend off an expected Republican filibuster and move the measure to a final vote by the end of next week.

Perhaps none feel the pressure more than the 21 Republican senators who are up for re-election in 2008.

"This is not about re-election. A lot of us who are up find that offensive," said Sen. Norm Coleman, R-Minn., who is up in 2008 and is trying to decide whether to back Warner's plan.

"The most important thing I worry about is what I say and what I do: Is that going to have a negative impact on troops on the ground?" Coleman said. "That's been my struggle in this."

In a gray area are Republicans such as Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana, a respected foreign-affairs expert. He's unlikely to vote against a troop increase but has been urging Bush to consider a Plan B.

Lugar has pressed the administration to call a regional conference involving all of Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, to push for a national reconciliation plan.

In a recent hearing, he said that if a troop increase didn't lead to political reconciliation among Iraq's warring sects, "we would be better served by a course in which U.S. forces in Iraq are redeployed outside urban areas," where they'd fight terrorists and train Iraqis but would escape being caught in sectarian crossfire.


(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.