Jan. 26, 2007 -- New troops are already on their way to Iraq, leading the "surge" that the President Bush has requested. The general who has been assigned to implement the changes in the battle plan is on his way as well. Now it's time for the 2008 presidential contenders to stake out their positions on either extreme of the president's plan. The debate in the Senate this week showed rare divisions among Republicans in particular.
Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., wholeheartedly supports the president's plan, while fellow conservative and White House aspirant Sen. Sam Brownback, R-Kan., does not. Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., who is still considering his political options, has compared Iraq to Vietnam, a war in which he fought, and has openly discussed running as an independent candidate on the issue of the war.
But there has also been a marked and noteworthy change in the tone of some of the president's most stalwart supports when they talk about Iraq. They are not criticizing the White House or the surge strategy, but are instead giving ultimatums to the Iraqi government in a way that the White House is not.
"This is the last chance for the Iraqis to step up and show this government can function," said Republican Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky this morning, pausing between words for emphasis.
McConnell is not criticizing the president's surge strategy, but the frank language he had for the Iraqi government shows that Republicans, even those who have long and vehemently supported the White House, are beginning to distance themselves rhetorically from Bush.
"Ladies and gentlemen, nothing is more important at this moment in our history than for America to succeed in the Middle East, to succeed in Iraq and to spare the American people from this danger," Bush said in his State of the Union address on Tuesday, implying that failure in the Middle East would be disastrous for the United States and not an option.
Voting With Their Feet
Counter that language with the scene on the Senate floor on Friday. McConnell, who would not spell out what happens if benchmarks fail, said that he could support a resolution telling the Iraqis, "this is it" -- implying that failure, or at least leaving Iraq without a clear and defined victory, might actually be an option.
Public support for the war in Iraq is at an all-time low and Bush's approval ratings mirror those of Richard Nixon at the height of the Watergate scandal.
This weekend, the view from McConnell's suite of offices in the Capitol building will show a flood of people -- as many as a half a million according to organizers -- marching against the war. Some of them promise to hoist an enormous fake spine as a not-too-subtle message to Democrats and Republicans in Congress. Even conservative Republican leaders like McConnell, usually Bush's base of political support, are reading the writing on the wall.
"Public opinion is the reason you're calling me the Republican (minority) Leader and not majority leader," McConnell said on Friday morning, referring to Iraq. "We got it. We understand."
The Republican resolution, which is still, as McCain said on Thursday, in the "embryonic" stages, would set "benchmarks" for the Iraq government and is meant to counter to the Democratic and moderate Republican resolutions that would say either the Senate "disagrees" with the surge strategy or that it's "not in the national interest."
It is unclear what, specifically, would be the consequences if the benchmarks suggested by the Republican resolution were not met. Certainly, supporters of the surge like McCain have not uttered any ultimatums to the Iraqis. And finding common ground among Republicans on what benchmarks are remains a daunting task.
"Everyone knows what the consequences are," McConnell said.
But when challenged by a reporter who said that he actually didn't know what the consequences were, McConnell acknowledged that that aspect of the Republican plan had not been completely worked out.
A 'Benchmark' Vote
McConnell has indicated in the past that he would require a procedural "cloture" vote on both the Democratic and moderate bipartisan resolutions for them to proceed to an up-or-down vote on the Senate floor. This would force supporters of the anti-surge resolutions to come up with 60 votes and not just a simple, 51-vote majority.
"As on every bill, 60 votes are required," McConnell said recently. But he also implied that if Democrats allow the Republican "benchmark" alternative to be a part of the framework of a "respectful and serious debate," the minority could be satisfied.
Prior to the State of the Union, House Republicans announced their own plan to set "benchmarks" for the Iraqis and even for the White House early this week. The newfound Republican minority called on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., to set up a bipartisan Iraq oversight committee that would check up often on the progress of the surge strategy.
"The support for the war on the Hill amongst Republicans is strong," House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio declared at a press conference Monday. "But the skepticism of some Republicans of the president's new plan is that it is based on the Iraqis stepping up and playing more of a role."