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Domenici part of senior Republican defection to new Iraq policy

Sen. Pete Domenici delivered the latest political body blow to President Bush's war policy today, as the New Mexico Republican announced his support for a bipartisan bill calling for redeployment of troops in the first quarter of 2008.

As I wrote in the story for this afternoon, Domenici endorsed a bill that calls for implementing the 79 recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, most importantly drawing down troop size to a limited number that merely patrol the borders and work on counter-terrorism operations.

"I am unwilling to continue our current strategy," Domenici said.

Domenici became the fourth senior Republican in 10 days to significantly criticize the current Iraq strategy, following Sens. Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), George Voinovich (R-Ohio) and John Warner (R-Va.).

Combined, those four have 103 years of senatorial experience.

That such senior Republicans are speaking out against Bush's policy now is significant. The White House has been begging its Capitol Hill allies to hold off till a mid-September progress report from the Pentagon -- but the manner in which they're speaking out is just as significant.

Lugar offered a more than 5,000-word critique on the Senate floor last week. Domenici quietly signed on as a co-sponsor to the Iraq Study Group legislation more than a week ago, but then called a press conference today in Albuquerque to attract a significant amount of press attention to his dissent from White House orthodoxy on Iraq.

And Domenici's move also is likely to have a big ripple effect on House politics, as his disciple, Rep. Heather Wilson (R-N.M.), will come under pressure to also abandon Bush on Iraq. Wilson barely survived her 2006 campaign, winning by less than 1,000 votes, and is already being targeted by House Democrats for 2008.

Even more significant are the Republicans who had previously signed on as co-sponsors to the bill Domenici endorsed today. Its authors are Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.). Other co-sponsors include other Senate veterans who are especially close to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and the Bush White House, as well as a pair of endangered incumbents.

While these senators co-sponsored the Salazar bill with less fanfare than Domenici, their endorsement is a signal that the White House will face even tougher political times in defending its Iraq policy, if that's possible.

Here's a look at the six Senate Republicans who have endorsed the Salazar/Iraq Study Group legislation, along with the date they signed on to the bill:

* Alexander - June 5: The Tennessean is a close McConnell ally, the man who McConnell quietly backed for the job of Republican whip, the No. 2 post in leadership. In talking about his "new strategy" in late May on the Senate floor, Alexander said: "We are not going to put hundreds of thousands of troops in Iraq. We are not going to get out tomorrow. And the current surge on troops in Baghdad, which we all hope is successful, is not by itself a strategy for tomorrow. The Iraq Study Group report is a strategy for tomorrow."

• Robert Bennett (Utah) - June 5: No senator is closer to McConnell than Bennett, who holds the unofficial title as counsel to the minority leader. He managed McConnell's leadership campaigns and also served as a whip for Alexander's unsuccessful bid for whip last year.
• Susan Collins (Maine) - June 5: She faces Rep. Tom Allen (D) in what many view as one of the best Senate races in the country next year.
• Domenici - June 27: Up for re-election himself in 2008, Domenici is the ranking member of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee. He worked with Bennett on the Alexander whip race last fall.
• Judd Gregg (N.H.) - June 5: He's considered one of the closest senators personally to the Bush family. In the fall of 2004, Gregg helped Bush prepare for his debates by playing the role of Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.). Gregg is very close to McConnell, having delivered a nominating speech to fellow Republicans for McConnell when he ran unopposed for leader last fall.
• John Sununu (N.H.) - June 5: The freshman, along with Collins, is one of the most endangered GOP incumbents heading into 2008. His father, John Sununu Sr., served as White House chief of staff to Bush's father.

By Paul Kane  |  July 5, 2007; 5:45 PM ET
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