GOP centrists get boost

The bloc of Senate GOP centrists whose votes are key to any effective push to leave Iraq may gain even more influence on war policy in the wake of Gen. David Petraeus’s watershed Tuesday testimony.

Republicans were breathing easy as Petraeus, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, continued an unruffled defense of military progress there during his second day of testimony. But the solidifying positions of Senate leaders on both sides only strengthened the Republican center, where responses were hardly relieved.

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Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.) said he is working on a plan that envisions troop withdrawals in greater numbers than Petraeus’s suggested 30,000 by next summer. Petraeus’s proposed reduction would bring U.S. troop levels to about where they were before President Bush’s January “surge.”

“I don’t know if that’s enough for the American people,” said Smith, who faces a difficult reelection race next year. He was equally unsure that a withdrawal goal could win enough votes from both parties, adding: “I think the general’s been effective.”

Petraeus, appearing alongside U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker, parried questions from skeptical senior Republicans as well as Democrats. Both men repeatedly urged more time to make space for political progress by Baghdad’s fledgling government.

Even conservatives sounded surprising notes of frustration with White House war policy. Sen. David VitterDavid Bruce VitterThe biggest political upsets of the decade Red-state governor races put both parties on edge Louisiana Republicans score big legislative wins MORE (R-La.) cited “ups and downs” in Iraq and Sen. Jim DeMint (R-S.C.) deemed the U.S. “unprepared politically and militarily for the task” of invading Iraq.

Yet centrist Republicans, many of them apprehensive about defending the war on the campaign trail next year, remain the focus. Sen. Lamar AlexanderAndrew (Lamar) Lamar AlexanderLawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response Bill Barr is trying his best to be Trump's Roy Cohn The Trump administration's harmful and immoral attack on children MORE (R-Tenn.) saw a post-Petraeus opening for his and Sen. Ken Salazar’s (D-Colo.) plan to turn the bipartisan Iraq Study Group recommendations into law.

“What I’m looking for is an overarching new strategy that says we want to finish the business in Iraq,” Alexander said. He depicted Tuesday’s testimony as the study group’s report, “updated by Petraeus and Crocker.”

Salazar is meeting with Democrats to examine possible changes to the Iraq Study Group language before the Senate resumes its Iraq debate. But Alexander said he would not support adding a hard date to begin troop withdrawals in order to win over senior Democrats, and Salazar’s other GOP co-sponsors also are likely to flee if that change is made.

Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) applauded Petraeus’s planned troop drawdown, but moments later asked the general, “Can we get a longer-term vision? Can we get a longer-term plan?”

“I think we need something a little more than, ‘Give us more time to come back again in the fall,’” Coleman said.
Heading into the afternoon policy luncheon, where Vice President Cheney spoke to Republicans, Coleman added, “The American people have to have a clearer sense of the light at the end of the tunnel.”

Centrist GOP Sen. John Warner (Va.), his party’s dean on military issues, pointedly told reporters, “I have purposely gotten myself out of politics.” But the retiring Warner did not shy from politically charged exchanges, getting Petraeus to admit that he does not know whether operations in Iraq are making the country safer.

“I hope … you know that [maintaining the current] strategy will continue the casualties, stress on our forces, stress on military families, stress on all Americans,” Warner told Petraeus.

One senior Republican aide described the Iraq debate as coming down to “a persuadable few,” the half-dozen centrists who feel the most pressure during Democratic votes on changing course in Iraq.

“At some level, this has got to be welcome news for moderates,” the aide said. “[Petraeus] has given them something to hang their hat on.”

Still, the centrists enter next week’s defense authorization debate wielding new power as swing votes for the frustrated majority, where Sen. Orrin HatchOrrin Grant HatchTrump administration backs Oracle in Supreme Court battle against Google Timeline: Trump and Romney's rocky relationship Key Republicans say Biden can break Washington gridlock MORE (R-Utah) observed “all kinds of backing off.”

While Coleman and Sen. Pete Domenici (R-N.M.) welcomed Petraeus’s suggested troop withdrawals, Sen. Lisa MurkowskiLisa Ann MurkowskiOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Overnight Energy: Critics pile on Trump plan to roll back major environmental law | Pick for Interior No. 2 official confirmed | JPMorgan Chase to stop loans for fossil fuel drilling in the Arctic MacGregor confirmed as Interior deputy chief MORE (R-Alaska) appeared skeptical.

“This … sounds identical to what President Bush has been saying all along,” Murkowski told Petraeus.
Sen. Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsOvernight Health Care — Presented by American Health Care Association — Lawmakers raise alarms over Trump coronavirus response | Top official warns virus appears inevitable in US | Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Democrats block two Senate abortion bills Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick MORE (R-Maine) also expressed dismay at the recommended force reductions.

“Keeping somewhere between 125,000 and 150,000 American troops in Iraq for at least another 10 months, performing the same mission, will result in more casualties and will not prompt the Iraqi government to enact political reforms,” Collins said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidDemocratic insiders stay on the sidelines in 2020 race Harry Reid calls for end to all caucuses Reid pushes back on Sanders suggestion that a Democrat with plurality of delegates should be the nominee MORE (D-Nev.) continues to reach out to Republicans seeking a consensus Iraq proposal that can break the 60-vote threshold. Reid has not yet indicated whether he would schedule war votes on the defense authorization bill, but some in the GOP advised him to take a new approach.

“We’d like to get the DoD [Department of Defense] authorization bill done,” Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneRepublicans give Barr vote of confidence Trump creates new headaches for GOP with top intelligence pick GOP casts Sanders as 2020 boogeyman MORE (R-S.D.) said. “Decoupling those issues would be a good thing.”

Meanwhile, Republicans released their own resolution condemning Monday’s MoveOn.org ad that called Petraeus “General Betray Us.” Democrats rebuffed the measure as not germane to the transportation appropriations bill now on the floor and appear disinclined to offer Republicans a chance to vote on the language.