President Hears Unfamiliar Critics as Republicans Grow Wary of War

After years of relying on near-total Republican loyalty on the Iraq War, President Bush is suddenly confronting a major revolt inside his party's ranks in Congress, with a growing number of Republicans fearful of an electoral backlash if the president doesn't change course.

Tuesday's extraordinary meeting at the White House, where 11 House Republican moderates bluntly shared their concerns with the president, marked the most dramatic display to date of GOP unease over the war.

"It was about as candid as I've ever seen it from members of Congress to President Bush," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., who participated in the meeting. "I think he understood what members were saying. He listened very intently. He certainly didn't get defensive. I think his mood was pretty sober."

Republicans Wary, but Still Back War

Thursday, two GOP senators -- Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and Olympia J. Snowe of Maine -- joined with Democrats in unveiling bills that aim to alter U.S. policy in Iraq, despite the White House's objections.

"Time is running out, and America's patience is finite," said Snowe, who traveled to Iraq last weekend. "We cannot further countenance political intransigence by the Iraqi government while our men and women are on the frontline making sacrifices each and every day."

Participants in the Tuesday meeting said Bush seemed to get the message that his administration has little time to show progress in Iraq.

The president acknowledged concern that Iraq could lead to Republican losses in next year's elections, and said at one point, "I don't want to pass this off to another president."

House Pushes Withdrawal Measure

The first test of party loyalty could come as soon as Thursday night, with Democrats pushing the latest version of their war-funding bill.

The White House opposes it because it would give the administration only about half of the money it is looking for, and most Republicans appear ready to back the president.

But the president shouldn't mistake that solidarity for any lasting loyalty to his administration, said Tony Fabrizio, a Republican pollster.

Republicans are still willing to follow the president's lead primarily because they realize that the party owns the war regardless of the outcome -- and therefore desperately want the president's troop "surge" to succeed, Fabrizio said.

"We're beyond half-pregnant here," he said. "We are locked in. If we turned and changed our position on the war and left, Iraq is still going to be our fault."

Fabrizio said more Republicans are likely to support establishing firm benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. But it's not yet clear that Republicans are willing to join Democrats in calling for a troop withdrawal to begin, he said.

The White House sought to downplay the importance of Tuesday's meeting, casting it as one of many private discussions the president is having with members of Congress.

"There is unity in the Republican Party about what's going on, on Capitol Hill right now," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. "If you want disunity, take a look at what's going on with Democrats, where they cannot agree upon a resolution."

Generals Make Anti-War Pitch

But even outside of this week's White House meeting, Republican support for the war is showing signs of eroding.

Three retired U.S. generals -- including John Batiste, who had commanded the First Infantry Division in Iraq -- are appearing in a new anti-war advertisement aimed at defeating moderate Republicans.

The ad accuses the president of not listening to his commanders in Iraq.

Snowe's bill would require troop withdrawals if the Iraqi government doesn't meet political benchmarks. Alexander's would implement the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, with an eye toward withdrawing most combat troops by early 2008.

"We need to get out of the combat business in Iraq and into the support and training and equipping business as soon as we honorably can," Alexander said. "As a Republican senator, my message with respect to the president is that I hope he and the White House seriously consider this."

In recent days, the Bush administration has stepped up its pressure on the Iraqi government to achieve political goals. That was the message delivered in person Wednesday by Vice President Dick Cheney, who called on the Iraqis to cancel their parliament's planned two-month break.

The president, however, has shown little willingness to negotiate with Democrats on issues involving troop withdrawals. Fabrizio noted that, unlike members of Congress, Bush will never have to face another election, and could be too deeply committed to seeing the war through to consider new options.

"From a political standpoint, if he were to reverse himself at this juncture, he would not endear himself to the people who are his critics," he said. "And to his base who has stood by him, it would be a complete betrayal."

But if the cracks in Republican unity don't pressure the president to start bringing an end to the war, Democrats said they're confident that the next election will make it happen.

Republicans will show the president that they're "no longer willing to sacrifice everything else they believe in on the altar of his failed policy there -- that's one way this can be resolved," said Sen. Evan Bayh, D-Ind. "The other way is the election of a new president."