As the Senate launches a historic debate Monday over whether to oppose President Bush's new strategy for the Iraq war, the outcome may well turn on a few votes on both sides of the aisle.
Though not binding on the president, a vote in favor of a resolution to reject his plan to add 21,500 US forces in Iraq would be Congress's first against the war since it authorized the use of force in 2002.
Some backers of a compromise resolution worked out by Sens. John Warner (R) of Virginia and Carl Levin (D) of Michigan say it would be a first step toward pushing for more forceful moves, such as curbing war funds or setting a timetable for troop withdrawal. Opponents, including most Republican senators, say it would send a message of disunity to US friends and foes abroad and undermine prospects for success.
Both sides are weighing the risks of action – or inaction.
It may seem like an easy decision for Democrats, because polls show both the war and the president to be unpopular, says John Pitney, a political scientist at Claremont McKenna College in Claremont, Calif. "But if they succeed in hastening the withdrawal, and disaster results, they could wind up with some of the blame, so that's tempering the move to put some teeth in the resolution," he says. "If they put teeth in the resolution, they may be the ones to get bitten."
The risks for Republicans are different but no less sharp. "Association with an unpopular war is hurtful, as they saw in 2006 election," notes Mr. Pitney. "But if they're seen as abandoning President Bush, they could alienate a lot of primary voters and look like flip-floppers. For Republicans, it could become a character issue."
The Warner-Levin resolution calls for shifting responsibility to the Iraq government for dealing with sectarian conflict, but also specifies that nothing in the resolution should not be interpreted as "precipitating any immediate reduction in, or withdrawal of, the present level of forces." About 140,000 American troops were serving in Iraq before Mr. Bush laid out his plan on Jan. 10 to send 21,500 more.