WASHINGTON - President Bush's decision to send 21,500 more combat troops to Iraq drew heavy fire from both Democrats and some Republicans on Thursday despite a plea by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice for a "national imperative not to fail."
A day after Bush's prime time speech from the White House, the Senate's top Republican threatened a filibuster to block any legislation expressing disapproval of the plan.
"Obviously, it will ... require 60 votes," said Sen. Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., as senior administration officials made the case for Bush's new policy in Congress, at news briefings and on the morning television programs. He was referring to the minimum number of votes necessary to break stalling tactics and take up legislation.
Despite support for the president's plan from McConnell and other members of the Republican leadership, rank-and-file Republicans seemed weary of the war that has lasted almost four years and claimed more than 3,000 American military lives.
The main battlefield for the administration on Thursday was the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where Rice was grilled sharply by members of both parties.
Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel told Rice the president's plan was "the most dangerous foreign policy blunder in this country since Vietnam, if it's carried out."
And another Republican member, Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio, said Bush could no longer count on his support.
"You're going to have to do a much better job" explaining the rationale for the war, "and so is the president," Voinovich told Rice. "I've gone along with the president on this and I've bought into his dream and at this stage of the game I just don't think its going to happen."
In her opening remarks, Rice acknowledged widespread concerns about the war both among members of Congress and ordinary Americans.
"I want you to know that I understand and indeed feel the heartbreak that Americans feel at the continued sacrifice of American lives, men and women who can never be replaced for their families, and for the concern of our men and women who are still in harm's way," she said.
"This is a time for a national imperative not to fail in Iraq," she added.
But Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., the committee chairman, told her, "Secretary Rice, to be very blunt, I cannot in good conscience support the president's approach."
And in a Senate speech, Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said that while Bush's plan would be carefully scrutinized, "In choosing to escalate the war, the president virtually stands alone."
But options for critics of the war were limited; Democratic leaders have mulled a resolution of disapproval and there also has been talk of attaching a host of conditions to approval of a spending bill to cover the costs of the buildup.
Bush's new strategy, announced Wednesday in a prime-time address to the nation, increases U.S. forces in Iraq by 21,500 and demands greater cooperation from the Iraqi government.
At a news conference, McConnell accused Democrats of secretly favoring a plan to cut off funding for the troops - an allegation that Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif. denied.
McConnell conceded that Republicans as well as Democrats are troubled by Bush's new policy, but said, "Congress is completely incapable of dictating the tactics of the war."
Reid has said he will schedule a vote on a nonbinding resolution expressing disapproval of Bush's new policy, but McConnell's filibuster threat indicated that he would not be rushed into the vote.
Under the Senate's rules, even the threat of a filibuster can force concessions by the majority.
Meanwhile, Defense Secretary Robert Gates said he could not say just how long the buildup would last. "It's viewed as a temporary surge, but I think no one has a really clear idea of how long that might be," Gates told an early-morning White House briefing.
But he also said the United States should know pretty soon whether Iraqis were living up to their part of the deal and increasing their own forces.
Rice engaged in a tense exchange with Hagel, a Vietnam veteran and longtime critic of Bush's Iraq policy.
Rice disputed Hagel's characterization of Bush's buildup as an "escalation."
"Putting in 22,000 more troops is not an escalation?" Hagel asked. "I think, senator, escalation is not just a matter of how many numbers you put in."
"Would you call it a decrease?" Hagel asked.
"I would call it, senator, an augmentation that allows the Iraqis to deal with this very serious problem that they have in Baghdad," she said.
Hagel told Rice, "Madame Secretary, Iraqis are killing Iraqis. We are in a civil war. This is sectarian violence out of control."
She disputed that Iraq was in the throes of a civil war. To that, Hagel said, "To sit there and say that, that's just not true."
Sen. Ben Nelson, D-Neb, noted his own past support for the administration on the war. "I cannot continue to support the administration's position," he said. "I have not been told the truth over and over again by administration witnesses, and the American people have not been told the truth."
Meanwhile, after a meeting at the White House, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., expressed both doubts and optimism about the strategy.
"I am concerned about Maliki and his strength. I am concern as to whether these are sufficient number of troops," he said. "But I do think we can succeed."
McCain, a 2008 presidential contender, has been among a handful of lawmakers who have called for more - not fewer - U.S. troops in Iraq.
In her testimony, Rice stressed Iraqi obligations for troops, money and the political will to allow the Bush plan to succeed. She promised oversight, without giving specifics.
"Iraqis are in the lead; we are supporting them," Rice said.
In speech in the House of Representatives, meanwhile, Rep. Ric Keller, R-Fla. noted that he was breaking ranks with Bush after long supporting the president's war policy.
"At this late stage, interjecting more young American troops into the crossfire of an Iraqi civil war is simply not the right approach," solution," Keller said.
A new AP-Ipsos poll found approval for Bush's handling of Iraq hovering near a record low - 29 percent of Americans approve and 68 percent disapprove.
In Wednesday's 20-minute speech, Bush took responsibility for mistakes in Iraq and outlined a strategy he said would pull it out of its spiral of violence.
"If we increase our support at this crucial moment, and help the Iraqis break the current cycle of violence, we can hasten the day our troops begin coming home," he said.