WASHINGTON - Republican support for the Iraq war remained on shaky ground in Congress but wasn't lost after a four-star general recommended keeping some 130,000 U.S. troops in the country through next summer.
With Gen. David Petraeus scheduled to testify Tuesday before Senate committees heavy with 2008 presidential candidates, many rank-and-file Republicans said they still were uneasy about the lack of political progress in Iraq. But they also remained reluctant to embrace legislation ordering troops home by next spring, increasing the likelihood that Democrats will have to soften their approach if they want to pass an anti-war proposal.
"I think people recognize the surge (in U.S. troops) has made a difference, but it hasn't enabled the Iraqi government to get its act together," said Rep. Ray LaHood, R-Ill., among the nearly dozen House Republicans who went to the White House last spring to personally relay their concerns about the war to President Bush.
"There's going to continue to be some heartburn," he said, adding that he would like to see Bush call for new elections in Iraq and possibly a more drastic drawdown of troops than suggested by Petraeus. He said he is not keen on forcing a timetable on the war.
The view of LaHood and other Republicans will factor in heavily as Democrats decide their next step. Democrats had anticipated that a larger number of Republicans by now would have turned against Bush on the war because of grim poll numbers and the upcoming 2008 elections.
Without their support, Democrats repeatedly have fallen short of enough votes to pass legislation ordering troop withdrawals to begin this fall and be completed by spring.
Petraeus told two House committees on Monday that he envisions the withdrawal of as many as 30,000 U.S. troops by next summer — down from the current 160,000-plus — beginning with a Marine contingent of about 2,000 Marines later this month and an Army brigade numbering 3,500 to 4,000 soldiers in mid-December. After that, an additional four brigades would be withdrawn by July 2008, he said.
Bush is widely anticipated to embrace the withdrawal goals when he unveils his plan for Iraq later this week.
Petraeus' testimony Tuesday was expected to be in an arena thick with politics. In separate hearings conducted by the Senate Armed Services and Foreign Relations committees, the general and U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker were to face five presidential hopefuls: Republican John McCain of Arizona and Democrats Joseph Biden of Delaware, Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York, Christopher Dodd of Connecticut and Barack Obama of Illinois.
He also was to face several of the GOP senators who have been the most vocal against Bush's decision to send an extra 30,000 troops to Iraq this year.
"While I agree with General Petraeus that an abrupt withdrawal of our troops would have catastrophic consequences, I disagree that it is premature to immediately transition the mission of our troops," said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, who is up for re-election next year and under substantial pressure by voters to help end the war.
Collins, along with Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., supports legislation limiting the mission of U.S. troops.
In Baghdad, the Iraqi government on Tuesday welcomed Petraeus' testimony and said the need for U.S. military support would decrease over time.
National Security Adviser Mouwaffak al-Rubaie, reading from a government statement, said the Iraqis believed that "in the near future" the need for U.S. and other coalition forces "will decrease."
"The aim of the Iraqi government is to achieve self-reliance in security as soon as possible, but we still need the support of coalition forces to reach this point," cautioned al-Rubaie, who in the past has often spoken optimistically of Iraq's capabilities.
In statements here, Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid said keeping troops in Iraq is not "in the national interest," while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., deemed it "unacceptable."
"The longer we keep over 130,000 troops in Iraq, the less incentive Iraqis have to engage in the needed political reconciliation and the longer we avoid dealing with several pressing threats to our national security," said Reid, D-Nev.
House Minority Leader John Boehner, R-Ohio, said: "As Congress prepares to take our next steps in support of our troops, we are faced with a critical choice. Will we ignore the progress we've made and play politics with the security of our nation, or will we finally listen to the generals?"
Other Democrats and several Republicans say there is plenty of room for compromise. Congressional aides say bipartisan proposals are in the works and that Reid has reached out to several GOP senators to discuss potential common ground. However, a major hurdle remaining are politically influential organizations like MoveOn.org who say Democrats shouldn't water down the debate with more moderate legislation.
Alternative legislative proposals on Iraq include: