Republicans ready to support president on Afghanistan troop increase

Democrats, however, were reserved and nuanced in their statements after a bipartisan, bicameral meeting at the White House.

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The meeting demonstrated that if Obama decides not to seek additional troops, he and the Democrats who back him will be criticized for not supporting the decisions of his commanders on the ground.

Republican leaders are firmly backing the recommendation by Gen. Stanley McChrystal to send another 40,000 troops, which would be nearly 20,000 more than President George W. Bush sent to Iraq two years ago.

Democratic leaders are split, with some endorsing McChrystal’s recommendation and others much more skeptical.

Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman John Kerry (D-Mass.) said members urging the president to make a decision need to be prepared to answer questions about how much money they are willing to spend on the effort and how long they are committed to keeping troops in Afghanistan.

“Until these questions are answered, I think it’d be irresponsible” to deploy more troops, Kerry said.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) said whether Democrats can support Obama’s decision “remains to be seen.”

But Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said after the meeting that everyone at the table with the president agreed that “whatever decision [Obama] makes, we’ll support it.”

While no congressional leader has called for a withdrawal of troops, many Democrats want to streamline the mission by targeting just al Qaeda rather than the Taliban.

In the middle is Obama, taking heat from both sides of the political spectrum as he weighs a foreign policy and military question. Aides said he will make a decision within weeks.

Sen. John McCain (Ariz.), the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, came out of the meeting forcefully urging the president to send more troops with “deliberate haste.”

“Many of us are committed to trying to build support for the president if he makes the right decision,” said House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.). But if Obama rejects McChrystal’s call for more troops, Cantor said, Republicans will demand that the president make a “compelling case.”

It was the first formal White House meeting in six months for Republican leaders, and comes after weeks of harsh exchanges between the two parties about Obama’s proposed healthcare overhaul.

McChrystal said publicly last week that the U.S. needs a significant troop infusion in the region or else the mission will fail. Pelosi on Monday joined administration figures in criticizing McChrystal for going public with his request rather than sending it quietly through the military chain of command.

Vice President Joe Biden, meanwhile, has been the principal voice behind shifting to a more limited mission, hunting down al Qaeda terrorists rather than trying to stabilize the shaky Afghan government.

McChrystal’s request comes amid the deadliest year in the eight-year war, and just as public support for U.S. involvement in Afghanistan begins to wane.

About 30 lawmakers attended the White House meeting, including congressional leaders from both parties and the top Democrats and Republicans on relevant committees.

Sources said Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) pushed a more limited mission with more for Afghanistan military training, while House Armed Serves Committee Chairman Ike Skelton (D-Mo.)  — who sponsored the House’s 2007 disapproval of the Iraq surge — pressed to fulfill McChrystal’s request.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said that Congress needs to give resources that the White House needs to fulfill “whatever mission [Obama] decides upon,” a congressional aide with knowledge of the meeting told The Hill.

House Appropriations Committee Chairman David Obey (D-Wis.) told Obama there isn’t public support for a long, open-ended operation. Earlier this year, Obey said he would give the White House one year to show significant progress in Afghanistan.

House Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) told the president that Republicans challenged the idea of a “pure counter-terrorist” strategy, the aide said.

An administration official said the president “made it clear that his decision won’t make everybody in the room or the nation happy, but underscored his commitment to work on a collaborative basis with the understanding that everyone wants what is best for the country.”

Obama has held two meetings on the war with his top national security advisers. He has two more scheduled for this week on Wednesday and Friday.

If Obama were to back McChrystal’s request, it appears increasingly likely that Obama would need solid support among Republicans to get the funding to sustain the buildup. There has been increasing Democratic resistance.

A majority of Democrats in June supported an amendment by Afghan war opponent Rep. James McGovern (D-Mass.) demanding an exit strategy for the conflict. It was voted down overwhelmingly.

Last month, 57 members of Congress, including seven Republicans, signed a letter urging Obama to reject McChrystal’s recommendation to send more troops.

And last week, many of the signers of that letter signed on to a bill by Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), the only member of Congress to vote against the 2001 invasion.
On Tuesday, Hoyer declined to echo Pelosi’s statement that there isn’t support in the country or Congress for a troop increase. Hoyer said he didn’t know whether there was majority support in Congress.

Liberal groups have started mobilizing on Afghanistan, though sometimes with less zeal than they showed when protesting the Iraq war under Bush. On Sunday, MoveOn.org urged members to sign a petition telling Obama and Congress that “We need a clear military exit strategy — not tens of thousands more U.S. troops stuck in a quagmire.”

Republicans are also turning up the pressure. The National Republican Congressional Committee (NRCC) lashed out at Pelosi in a release by spokesman Ken Spain saying, “If Nancy Pelosi’s failed economic policies are any indicator of the effect she may have on Afghanistan, taxpayers can only hope McChrystal is able to put her in her place.”

Democrats quickly fired back at the NRCC.

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D-Fla.) said, “I think the place for a woman is at the top of the House of Representatives. It’s evidence they long for the days when a woman's place was in the kitchen. Now a woman is third in line for the presidency... But it’s not surprising, coming from a party that’s 80 percent male and 100 percent white,” referring to the makeup of the House Republican Conference.

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