WASHINGTON - A Senate resolution opposing President Bush's war plan on Iraq put the White House and Republican leaders on the defensive Wednesday as they scurried to prevent a trickle of GOP support for the measure from swelling into a deluge.
Eager to avoid an embarrassing congressional rebuke of the president's new war strategy, the administration seemed to hint that the effort - led chiefly by Democrats - might somehow be of assistance to terrorists. They also herded GOP skeptics to the White House, where they tried to allay the concerns of Republican lawmakers including Sens. John Warner of Virginia, Sam Brownback of Kansas, Norm Coleman of Minnesota and Susan Collins of Maine.
"What message does Congress intend to give?" asked White House spokesman Tony Snow. "And who does it think the audience is? Is the audience merely the president? Is it the voting American public or, in an age of instant communication, is it also al-Qaida?"
Initially announced by Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., and possible 2008 presidential candidates Sens. Joseph Biden, D-Del., and Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., the non-binding resolution states that "escalating the United States military force presence in Iraq" is not in the national interest. Bush has proposed adding 21,500 U.S. troops to the roughly 132,000 already in the country.
Moderate Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, also quickly signed on.
Hagel's and Snowe's support for the measure is a major victory for Democrats, who believe their support will open the door for other Republicans to jump on board and challenge Bush.
The resolution does not call for a withdrawal of troops or threaten funding of military operations, as many Democrats have suggested. Instead, it says the U.S. should transfer responsibility to the Iraqis "under an appropriately expedited timeline" that is not specified.
Republicans who attended the White House meetings said they emerged unconvinced more troops were the answer in Iraq, but were unsure whether signing on to the resolution was the answer.
Underscoring the GOP effort to keep its troops in line, many of those same members were invited Wednesday evening to meet behind closed doors with Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., who has threatened to filibuster the measure.
As the White House sought to stave off a major showdown between the administration and Congress on Iraq, GOP members who support Bush's plan drafted rival proposals.
House GOP leaders introduced a bill that would protect funding for U.S. troops, while Senate Republicans prepared a resolution that would voice support for Bush's strategy.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., said the Senate Republican resolution would say the Senate believes the war in Iraq should not be lost "and this strategy could bring about success if properly supported."
Warner is considering an alternative proposal that could attract GOP attention. Rather than denouncing the president's strategy, Warner's resolution would voice support for recommendations by a bipartisan Iraq Study Group. That panel urged a withdrawal of U.S. combat troops by early 2008, and did not recommend sending more troops unless specifically requested by a military commander.
In a statement announcing her decision to co-sponsor the Democratic-led resolution, Snowe said, "Now is time for the Congress to make its voice heard on a policy that has such significant implications for the nation, the Middle East and the world."
Hagel stood alongside Democrats in a press conference vowing to "do everything I can to stop the president's policy," adding, "I think it is dangerously irresponsible."
The resolution makes two underlying points: that sending more troops is the wrong approach and that a political solution is needed to end the violence. The draft document also says the main mission of U.S. troops should "transition to helping ensure the territorial integrity of Iraq, conduct counterterrorism activities, reduce regional interference in the internal affairs of Iraq, and accelerate training of Iraqi troops."
Biden, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said his panel will debate the measure on Jan. 24, the day following Bush's State of the Union address. A swift committee review would pave the way for debate on the floor as early as that week, although Democrats say it is likely Republicans on the committee will want to make changes.
Biden said "modest changes" to the bill might be used "to attract those who share our view but may not like our specific language."
The resolution backed by Biden and the others could help Democrats measure GOP support for more aggressive legislative tactics, such as cutting off funds for the war.
"Just how serious this resolution is, although it's not binding, is reflected by the fact that the Republican leader in the Senate has threatened to filibuster it," said Levin.
Many Democrats want to go much further and are expected to try to amend the resolution on the floor. Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., said he wants legislation capping the number of troops in Iraq at existing levels - a plan that attracted support from Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., who has his own bill threatening funding of troops.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., on Wednesday announced her legislation that would require Bush to obtain congressional approval for additional troops in Iraq if the Iraqis cannot show progress after six months.
"I do not support cutting funding for American troops but I do support cutting funding for Iraqi forces if the Iraqi government does not meet set conditions," Clinton told reporters after returning from a trip to Iraq and Afghanistan.
Dodd and Clinton are among several Democrats with 2008 presidential aspirations.