GOP moderates warn Bush they might stop backing war

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON -- A group of congressional Republicans warned President Bush in person this week that their support for the Iraq war could evaporate if conditions don't improve there by September.

Eleven GOP moderates, led by Rep. Mark Steven Kirk of Illinois, met with Bush and top administration officials Tuesday to deliver what one participant called a "strong signal" about the dangers that "war fatigue and war weariness" pose for Republicans in the 2008 elections.


"I've been to a lot of meetings at the White House," said Rep. Ray LaHood of Illinois, who attended the meeting. "I've been to a lot of meetings with the president about the war. This was one of the toughest, frankest, no-holds-barred meetings in terms of the members who were there giving their assessment of where they think things are in their district and the country."

The Republicans told Bush that they had little faith in Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki "to get his act together" and that they expect a "very candid report" in the fall from Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ryan Crocker, the new U.S. ambassador to Iraq, on the progress of Iraq's government, LaHood said.


"We want a very candid report in September," LaHood said. "We don't want politics mixed into it. And the way forward after September, if the report is not good, is going to be very, very difficult."

LaHood said the president "listened very carefully."

Last week, LaHood said the September report would be a "benchmark" for House Republicans, who have stood nearly united behind the president's requests for war funding. Minority Leader John A. Boehner of Ohio echoed that on Fox News Sunday.

Boehner attended the White House meeting Tuesday but mostly let the other House Republicans - who are members of a moderate coalition known as the Tuesday Group - convey their frustrations to Bush and his advisers, including Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and political adviser Karl Rove.

LaHood said several congressmen in the delegation faced difficult re-election campaigns last year and told Bush they are worried that the war could sink them in 2008.

Kirk, who could not be reached for comment last night, narrowly beat Democratic challenger Dan Seals last year.

Rep. Charlie Dent of Pennsylvania, a co-chairman of the Tuesday Group, helped arrange the meeting with Bush, which was first disclosed by NBC News yesrterday.

Dent told The New York Times that lawmakers wanted to convey the frustration and impatience with the war they are hearing from voters. "We had a very frank conversation about the situation in Iraq," he said.


Rep. Tom Davis of Virginia told the Associated Press that he presented recent polls from his suburban Washington district showing Bush's unfavorability ratings exceeded his approval ratings.

"We asked them what's Plan B. We let them know that the status quo is not acceptable," he said. Davis said the president responded that if he began discussing a new strategy, the current one would never have a chance to succeed

Bush met with Republicans and Democrats separately at the White House Tuesday. Aides called his meeting with members of his own party "unvarnished."

"I'm not going to comment on what the president may or may not have said in a meeting with members," Dana Perino, deputy press secretary, said yesterday. "He meets regularly with members of Congress and asks for their unvarnished opinions and frank advice. ... These conversations strengthen our relationships in our party, sharpen our policies, and bring greater understanding on our positions. It's a diverse party, but we broadly share common principles to keep America safe and secure."

Lawmakers said Bush made no commitments but seemed grateful for their support for the moment, the Times reported.

The Republicans lawmakers indicated they would maintain solidarity with Bush for now by opposing the latest Democratic proposal for two-stage financing of war, which is scheduled for a vote on Thursday in the House.


Jim Tankersley and Mark Silva write for the Chicago Tribune.