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Lugar Speech Signals GOP Unrest Over Iraq Policy

Republican Sen. Richard Lugar's speech sharply criticizing President Bush's Iraq policy and urging a reduction in the U.S. military role in that country signaled a move by a handful of senior Senate Republicans to challenge the administration to seek a diplomatic resolution to the widespread carnage and sectarian violence.

Lugar, the senior Republican on the Foreign Relations Committee, delivered a blunt assessment of Bush's Iraq policy on the Senate floor late yesterday, declaring that "In my judgment, the costs and risks of continuing down the current path outweigh the potential benefits that might be achieved."

Sen. John Warner (Va.), the former chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said today that he concurred with many of Lugar's criticism and indicated he would level his own criticisms of the current state of the war in Iraq Iraq during next month's consideration of the bill authorizing Pentagon operations for the coming fiscal year.

"I respect him greatly for stepping out," Warner told reporters before the weekly Republican luncheon, which Vice President Cheney attended. Coordinating their strategies, Warner huddled late last week with Lugar to review what the Indiana Republican planned to say in his floor speech.

Aides to the two GOP elder statesmen indicated that Lugar's central criticisms were delivered face to face to Bush in a January Oval Office meeting with the president, Lugar and Warner.

Meanwhile, Sen. George Voinovich (R-Ohio), a sometime critic of Bush's foreign policy, said he was drafting a letter to Bush that would call for a widespread diplomatic effort in the region, something he calls "Plan E" because there have already been several different plans from the Pentagon over the last four years. Voinovich said such a regional diplomatic effort needed to signal one major thing to Middle Eastern leaders: "We are leaving."

Lugar's speech, delivered with little fanfare, was a political blow to an administration that has relied on Republican members to block anti-war legislaiton. It also came as a surprise to many because Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and many other congressional Republicans have said they would wait unti September to assess the effectiveness of the latest U.S. military buildup in Iraq -- despite their growing impatience with the course of the war.

Lugar, who has publicly backed Bush on the war, said yesterday that a prolonged troop "surge strategy" in Iraq would delay "policy adjustments" that have a better chance of protecting vital U.S. interests in the longterm.

"Given the requirements of military planners, the stress of our combat forces, and our own domestic political timeline, we are running out of time to implement a thoughtful Plan B that attempts to protect our substantial interests in the region, while downsizing our military presence in Iraq," Lugar said in a lengthy speech last evening.

Bush and Defense Secretary Robert Gates have counciled lawmakers to hold their fire until September, when Gen. David Patraeus, commander of the forces in Iraq, is slated to deliver his report on the effect of surge of tens of thousands of troops into the region this year.

But Warner played a key symbolic role last fall when he returned from a trip to Iraq and proclaimed that portions of the country had taken "steps backwards," a downbeat assessment that came just weeks before former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's departure. While Warner's pronouncement came at a press conference he summoned reporters to in the Capitol, Lugar's speech took on none of those outward promotional tones.

Much more of a wonk than a message specialist, Lugar's speech came late Monday evening in a near-empty chamber after almost every lawmaker, staffer and reporter had left the building. Cable networks scrambled to get their reporters back to the Capitol for live shots trying to assess the impact Lugar's words would have.

Democrats pounced on the Lugar speech, with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) opening the chamber this morning with a floor speech thanking Lugar. "Some floor speeches go unnoticed, but Senator Lugar's is not one of them. When we finally end this war - and the history books are written - I believe that Senator Lugar's words yesterday could be remembered as a turning point. But that will depend on whether more Republicans will take the courageous first step that Senator Lugar took last night," Reid said.

Reid hopes to make the Defense Department authorization bill the next clearinghouse for votes on Iraq that will not be successful in actually clearing the 60-vote hurdles required to pass, but will continue to apply political pressure to Republicans for supporting the unpopular war.

Warner said that he may again offer the resolution he proposed in January when the Senate was debating a non-binding resolution opposed to the surge. It would shift the focus of troops in Iraq, drawing down overall numbers and redeploying those still there to specific assignments such as combating terrorism and sealing the borders to prevent foreign fighters from entering Iraq.

By Eric Pianin  |  June 26, 2007; 4:15 PM ET
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