Washington -- President Bush's Iraq strategy suffered a new Republican defection yesterday as New Mexico Sen. Pete V. Domenici said the president's approach is not working and called for a new one that would enable American troops to start leaving.
"I do not support an immediate withdrawal from Iraq or a reduction in funding for our troops," said Domenici, who has fervently opposed congressional efforts this year to force the administration to scale back the U.S. military presence in Iraq. "But I do support a new strategy that will move our troops out of combat operations and on the path to coming home."
Domenici's remarks drew a measured response from the White House, which has been trying to maintain Republican support for the president's six-month-old strategy of using additional American forces, primarily in Baghdad, to control sectarian violence.
Bush has repeatedly argued that the stepped-up U.S. military role will allow the Iraqi government to take steps to reconcile the country's warring Shiite and Sunni Arab factions and stabilize the country.
"We respect Senator Domenici. He is an important voice," White House spokesman Scott Stanzel said. "But we believe that the Baghdad security plan should be given an opportunity to be carried out."
Bush administration officials have said they may need many more months to assess whether the troop "surge" is working.
The expressions of doubt from a loyal White House ally, however, will likely further undermine the Bush administration's ability to continue the current strategy much past this summer.
Last week, two other Republican lawmakers - including Indiana Sen. Richard G. Lugar, the ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee - called Bush's strategy a failure and urged the president to begin planning a troop withdrawal.
As the Senate prepares for two weeks of debate about the Iraq war when it takes up the defense authorization bill, there are at least seven Republicans who have openly called for the Bush administration to begin planning a troop withdrawal. With the Senate's 49 Democrats nearly united, the chamber is inching toward the 60 votes needed to pass a bill to force the president to adopt a new strategy.
Domenici's comments also provided another indication of the political pressure on congressional Republicans to distance themselves from the unpopular president and the war.
Domenici, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, has not been among the handful of Republican lawmakers expressing reservations about Bush's wartime leadership. In the last Congress, he voted with the White House 90 percent of the time, according to Congressional Quarterly.
Now the 75-year-old senator, who is up for his seventh term next year, is facing a summer campaign by anti-war activists.
Domenici pointedly did not endorse any of the Democratic legislative initiatives to compel the president to begin withdrawing troops.
Instead, he said he would sign on to legislation being sponsored by a bipartisan group of 10 senators to make the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group the foundation of U.S. policy in Iraq.
Although the Iraq Study Group report did not set a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops, it laid out a series of policies designed to enable U.S. combat forces to begin to pull out in March.
Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill are pushing a much more aggressive deadline that would force the president to complete a withdrawal of most forces by April 1. Yesterday, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada challenged Domenici to join them.
"Sen. Domenici is correct to assess that the administration's war strategy is misguided," Reid said in a statement. "But we will not see a much-needed change of course in Iraq until Republicans are willing to stand up to President Bush and his stubborn clinging to a failed policy - and more importantly, back up their words with action."
Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.