WASHINGTON, D.C., June 26, 2007 -- President Bush had hoped to contain Republican lawmakers increasingly skeptical of his war policy in Iraq until September, when Gen. David Petraeus is scheduled to report to Congress on the status of the surge.
But those hopes were dashed this week when two prominent Senate Republicans called for Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. troops, and a third indicated he was headed in their direction, as well, with others following not far behind.
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., a respected, six-term senator who's the ranking Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, publicly challenged the management of the war and called for a change of direction.
Lugar, a past supporter of Bush and the war in Iraq, showed signs that his support was waning when he voted in February in favor of a symbolic resolution, expressing disapproval of the president's so-called "surge" strategy.
But Lugar took his concerns one giant step forward on Monday night, when he unexpectedly came to the floor of the Senate to call for the U.S. to begin withdrawing troops as soon as possible.
He was followed in his call by another Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, and was applauded by Sen. John Warner, R-Va., the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, who said that after the 4th of July recess, other Republicans would make similar calls to end the war.
"In my judgment, our course in Iraq has lost contact with our vital national security interests in the Middle East and beyond," Lugar said. "I see no convincing evidence that Iraqis will make the compromises necessary to solidify a functioning government and society."
Lugar said that "a course change should happen now" before presidential politics makes any consensus impossible.
'Absolutely a Big Deal'
The White House tried to pooh-pooh Lugar's defection Tuesday. "We take seriously his point of view because he is a serious guy," said White House Press Secretary Tony Snow. "On the other hand, we also take seriously the efforts and the advice that the president has gotten from his commanders on the ground."
But Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., said that Lugar's change of position would have an impact on other Republicans. "It's absolutely a big deal," LaHood said. "I'm sure it's a terrible blow to President Bush and his team because they know Sen. Lugar is one of the most respected members of the Senate."
Voinobich told ABC News that convincing Iraq's Arab neighbors to help pacify the region will only happen with a combination of diplomacy and troop withdrawal.
"Before the end of this year, there would be a substantial removal of troops to verify the fact that we weren't kidding when we said we were moving out," Voinovich said. "I would hope that many of my colleagues would say, whether directly or indirectly to the White House, that we are running out of time."
Lugar and Voinovich are not the first GOP members to call for U.S. troops to leave Iraq. Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon have made similar remarks. But the addition of Lugar and Voinovich raises the possibility that Senate Democrats could muster the votes needed to pass legislation that would call for Bush to bring troops home.
Supportive Democratic Response
Democrats not surprisingly seized upon Lugar's remarks today, with the Senate Majority Whip, Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., comparing Lugar's speech, just minutes after it was delivered, to an influential speech against the Vietnam War given by then-Sen. Robert Kennedy, D-N.Y.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said Tuesday that "Senator Lugar's words yesterday could be remembered as the turning point in this intractable civil war in Iraq."
But perhaps the Democrats' rhetoric is accurate. Snowe told the Associated Press, "Everyone should take note, especially the administration," she said, noting Lugar's position within the GOP. "It certainly indicates the tide is turning."
Lugar is expected to meet later this week with Stephen Hadley, Bush's national security advisor.
Avery Miller contributed to this report.