WASHINGTON -- President Bush spent hours yesterday practicing in front of cameras, preparing to make his case for increasing the U.S. military commitment in Iraq in a prime-time address to the nation tonight, even as congressional Democrats readied legislation to block any increase in the number of troops.
Members of Congress who met with Bush said he appears to understand that, after years of upbeat rhetoric and positive assessments that belied a lack of progress in Iraq, his credibility is on the line.
"He told us what he planned to say tomorrow," said Rep. Jane Harman, a California Democrat who was among about a dozen House members who met with the president and his top advisers for more than an hour yesterday afternoon. "In terms of tough moments in his presidency, this is it."
"As important as what he says is how he says it," Lott told reporters.
Lawmakers who have met with Bush this week say he intends to ask for about 20,000 more troops to shift the strategy in Iraq toward ending sectarian violence and increasing security for Iraqi civilians. The U.S. lawmakers say the Iraqi government has agreed to meet benchmarks of political progress as a condition of the troop increase.
Supporters of the Bush plan say a reduction in violence would foster political reconciliation between Iraqi factions. Detractors say that a "surge" in troops is just another term for escalation.
"His speech is going to clearly show that he is calling for an escalation in Iraq," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat.
Bush gave a rundown of the speech to House Democrats at a White House meeting.
"We were more in a question-and-answer mode, but a fair amount of skepticism was voiced," said Rep. Adam Smith, a Washington Democrat.
"It was not a confrontational meeting," said Rep. Ellen O. Tauscher, a California Democrat, who said she stressed the importance of the Iraqi government making political progress. "I think he understands that, at some level, this is the last best chance."
"I said a surge in troops was a good idea three years ago, but not now," Harman said. "Other strategies - political and diplomatic - right now are more critical."
Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, who joined other senior House Republicans at the White House yesterday, said he wants to hear more from Bush.
"I'm anxious to hear the speech," Young said, "because I think there's going to be a lot more in the speech than he told us today."
Reid said he intends to bring at least a nonbinding resolution to the Senate floor next week to permit Democrats and Republicans to vote against a troop increase. A similar measure is planned in the House.
Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, a Massachusetts Democrat, introduced legislation yesterday that would cut off funding for any troops in Iraq above the current level of 132,000. The measure would require the president to seek congressional approval before sending more troops to Iraq.
Kennedy said his legislation, which is being sponsored in the House by Rep. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, would "reclaim the rightful role of Congress and the people's right to have a full voice in the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq."
Kennedy noted that he and other Democrats do not plan to cut off funding for troops now in Iraq.
Maura Reynolds and Noam N. Levey write for the Los Angeles Times.