WASHINGTON --The Bush administration's allies in the Senate began a major effort yesterday to prevent a potentially embarrassing rejection of the president's plan to push more than 20,000 additional troops into Iraq.
With the Senate expected to reach votes on possible resolutions sometime next week, the signs of the new campaign seeped out after a weekly closed-door lunch, in which Republican senators engaged in what participants described as a heated debate over how to approach the issue.
The new effort by President Bush's allies is aimed at blocking two nonbinding resolutions directly critical of the White House that appeared to be gaining broad support among Democrats and some Republicans.
Republicans skeptical of the troop buildup said some of their colleagues had begun to suggest that opponents of the White House plan risk undermining Lt. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new military commander in Iraq, as well as Bush.
"There is a lot of pressure on people who could be with us not to be with us," said Republican Sen. Susan M. Collins of Maine, the co-author of one resolution along with Sens. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, and Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat.
As an alternative to that measure, and another broadly backed by Democrats, Republican Sens. John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, along with Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman, the independent from Connecticut, are trying to enlist support for a resolution that would set benchmarks for the Iraqi government and describe the troop increase as a final chance for the U.S. to restore security in Baghdad.
Graham and McCain have been joined in their effort by the Republican leader, Mitch McConnell of Kentucky; Sen. John Cornyn of Texas; and Sen. David Vitter of Louisiana.
The debate over Iraq also resounded elsewhere on Capitol Hill, as senators attending the confirmation hearing for Adm. William J. Fallon, nominated to command U.S. forces in the Middle East, heard his blunt assessment of the path ahead.
He said "time is running out" for positive action by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to show it is committed to quelling sectarian violence and reaching out to disaffected Sunnis.
Although Fallon has not been involved in forming Iraq strategy, he agreed that the Iraqi government must perform. He said he was prohibited from taking part in central command policymaking until his confirmation.
"Time is running out," Fallon said, "and clearly I think there's a pretty broad understanding, certainly in my mind and others that I've talked to, that they are going to need to take actions."
At another Senate hearing, the leaders of the Iraq Study Group, the bipartisan panel that reported to Bush and Congress last month, disputed the White House's contention that most of their recommendations had been incorporated into Bush's troop increase plan.
"The diplomatic effort has not been full enough," said Lee H. Hamilton, co-chairman of the study group with James A. Baker III. Testifying to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hamilton described the initiatives begun by the administration in the Middle East as modest and slow, and added, "We don't have the time to wait."
On the Senate Judiciary Committee, Democrats began laying the constitutional groundwork for an effort to block the president's plan to send more troops to Iraq and place new limits on the conduct of the war there, perhaps forcing a withdrawal of American forces from Iraq.
In advance of a possible Senate vote on the resolutions, Republican senators appear widely divided over how to proceed. In trying to head off the resolution supported by Warner and Collins, allies of the White House appear to be trying to muster at least the 41 votes they would need to prevent a vote on the measure under Senate rules.
McCain is sponsoring the competing resolution that would establish benchmarks for the Iraqi government. He said the proposal also could be fashioned to give Congress more oversight.
Republicans were viewing McCain's plan as a way to deter Republicans from joining in the resolutions more critical of Bush, and many Republicans said that would be preferable to one criticizing the troop buildup outright. Senators also said they were beginning to realize that the vote, while nonbinding, would be an important statement on congressional sentiment regarding the war.
"We all know the world is watching," said Sen. Saxby Chambliss, a Georgia Republican.