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Re-Elections Loom as Senators Weigh Iraq Shift

Congressional Democrats are proposing various plans to change course in the Iraq war. But if they hope to pass anything, they'll need to bring along some Republicans. A handful of GOP senators — many of them facing tough re-election contests next year — are wavering.

Connecticut Democrat and presidential candidate Sen. Christopher Dodd's plan is to redirect money for the war unless most troops are brought home by the end of next year. It's not likely to draw much support from the GOP.

But others will be co sponsored by Republicans, like a proposal to change the mission in Iraq, offered by democrat Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Republican Susan Collins of Maine.

"I think we need to shift the mission right now. I don't see any point in waiting another six months to assess the situation in Iraq," Collins said.

The Nelson-Collins plan would draw troops out of combat and have them focus on counterterrorism and training Iraqi troops. Such a mission might require about 50,000 troops, Collins says, less than a third of the number currently deployed.

Collins was not impressed by the limited drawdowns President Bush outlined Thursday night.

"What the president is proposing is to have approximately the same number of troops in Iraq 10 months from now as we had 10 months ago and that does not feel like progress to me," she said.

Other Senate Republicans have similar frustrations with the size of the proposed reductions and the pace of change in Iraq. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska says the surge has not had the hoped for political impact:

"If we're back where we were a year ago, is it not reasonable to assume that we would see a level of progress not only on the military front but on the political front? And again, this is where we don't have the control that I think we would like to have."

Murkowski is expected to support a measure sponsored by Virginia Democrat James Webb that would limit the amount of time U.S. troops could be deployed in Iraq, requiring that they be given an equal amount of time home. Such a requirement would likely be a de facto limit on troop levels in Iraq.

Republican leader Mitch McConnell plays down possible GOP defections in this week's debate.

"I don't think many of my members are in favor of just running up the white flag and inviting the terrorists to come back here, and I think that's where the vast majority of the American people are," he says.

McConnell says next year's congressional elections, when Republicans will attempt to hold on to 22 Senate seats, will be about the future, not necessarily the war in Iraq. But that's little comfort to Republicans like Collins. who is expected to face a tough re election fight.

Collins is optimistic voters in her state support her efforts to find a middle ground.

"As I've talked about my plan for changing the mission, drawing down our troops in a substantial but responsible way, I've found that the majority of people I am talking with appreciate that approach and understand the complexity of the war in Iraq," she says.

But Republicans also know that many Americans patience with the war has already run out.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

NPR News' Brian Naylor is a correspondent on the Washington Desk. In this role, he covers politics and federal agencies.