G.O.P. Elders Extinguish Last Chance for Changing Course in Iraq

The tantalizing illusions of war opponents about two Republican Party elders have this week been shattered.

John Warner, the soon-to-be-retired Virginia Senator, and George H.W. Bush, the President’s father, potentially have the clout to engineer an 11th hour maneuver that might hasten the end of the war.

But neither of them will ever exercise that clout.

Almost single-handedly, Mr. Warner on Wednesday sounded the death knell to what may have been the last best hope for Congressional action to override President Bush’s Iraq obstinacy—an amendment that would have mandated that troops receive as much time at home as they spend on the battlefield.

Since the White House has sustained the current troop level only by continually extending troops’ deployments, the amendment would have forced a speedy and steady reduction in the size of the U.S. force in Iraq–overriding President Bush’s call for a conditional redeployment of only 30,000 troops by next summer.

The plan was offered by Democrat Jim Webb and Republican Chuck Hagel, and Mr. Warner himself had backed it over the summer, when it fell just four votes short of overcoming a G.O.P. filibuster threat. Mr. Webb reintroduced it this week amid optimism that a handful of Republicans who had opposed it previously were reconsidering their positions.

But as debate began Wednesday, Mr. Warner took to the Senate floor and dashed those hopes.

“I endorsed it,” he acknowledged. “I intend now to cast a vote against it.”

And with that, Mr. Webb’s amendment was as good as dead – as was the prospect of any binding Iraq legislation passing the Senate in the near future. Wavering Republicans who’d been on the brink of backing the plan–Arlen Specter, Lisa Murkowski and George Voinovich among them– immediately pulled back out of respect for Mr. Warner’s judgment. When the roll was called, Mr. Webb’s plan received 56 votes, still shy of the needed 60.

The Webb plan represented the only Iraq legislation with a realistic chance of attracting 60 Senate votes. Its demise kills the near-term prospects that Congress will take action to force a mission change in Iraq. President Bush’s plan to withdraw about 30,000 troops by next summer is misleading, since those troops’ deployments–already extended and re-extended by Mr. Bush–are due to expire early next year.

Mr. Warner justified his flip-flop by relaying conversations he’d had with Pentagon officials, who, he said, had frantically warned him that the “time-off” plan could not be implemented without causing chaos.

But to advocates of a course change in Iraq, his reversal is an exasperating final straw. All summer, Mr. Warner, who chaired the Armed Services Committee until the Democratic takeover in January has flirted with breaking with the White House. He voiced opposition to the initial troop surge, proposed legislation that would have asked the President to prepare a contingency plan for redeploying troops, and called for a troop reduction even before General David Petraeus’ offered his ostensibly pivotal military progress report this month.

People will believe what they want to believe, and it seemed clear to war foes that Mr. Warner, an old-school moderate Republican with a history of bucking his party on principle, had reached the same conclusion they had about Iraq, and that it was only a matter of time before he blew the whistle on the White House’s delay tactics.

G.O.P. Elders Extinguish Last Chance for Changing Course in Iraq