WASHINGTON -- GOP Sen. John Warner, who wants U.S. troops to start coming home from Iraq by Christmas, said Sunday he may support Democratic legislation ordering withdrawals if President Bush refuses to set a return timetable soon.
"I'm going to have to evaluate it," Warner said. "I don't say that as a threat, but I say that is an option we all have to consider."
Warner, a former Navy Secretary and one-time chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is seen as someone who could influence the debate among senators who have grown increasingly uneasy about the unpopular war.
Warner's suggestion last week about bringing back some troops put him at odds with Bush, who has insisted that conditions on the ground should dictate any such decisions. Warner long has opposed legislation pushing for timetables.
The Virginia Republican said Sunday it would be best for the president, not Congress, to make a decision on withdrawals and that overriding a presidential veto would be difficult. But Warner made clear his view that people are losing patience with the administration's strategy in Iraq, a significant change is needed in September and troop withdrawals were the best way to accomplish that.
"That's precisely what I said to the president. I said, 'Here is an option. You can initiate a first withdrawal. You pick the number, Mr. President. And it would send a signal to the Iraqi government that matches your words,'" Warner said. "His words being, `We're not going to be there forever.'"
"The president has got to put teeth in these comments that we're not there forever," he added.
The political wrangling comes as the White House and Congress are headed toward a showdown on the Iraq war. In mid-September, Gen. David Petraeus, the top military commander in Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker plan to give their assessment of Bush's decision this year to send 30,000 additional troops to Iraq.
"We've got to show our resolve in the face of the Iraqi government inaction," Warner said. "I'm looking for in that message of the 15th what the president's going to do to get this (Iraqi) government jump-started to deliver on its commitment to our troops, 'You fight and die, get the security, I will deliver Iraq as a reconciled unity government.'"
Over the weekend, beleaguered Iraq prime minister Nouri al-Maliki lashed out at U.S. critics who have called for his ouster and pushed for withdrawals. Al-Maliki cited in particular Democratic senators Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin, who the prime minister said "consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages."
Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said he was troubled with the slow pace of al-Maliki's government in fostering political reconciliation but cautioned that U.S. efforts to push too hard could backfire.
"Senator Warner is a great patriot and a student of history, and he's clearly sending a signal to the Iraqis that our patience is not unlimited, and that's correct," said Cornyn, a fellow member of Senate Armed Services Committee. "But I don't think it's in our best interest to put so much pressure on the new Iraqi government that it absolutely collapses."
"We don't want to allow that to happen, because it would make us less safe here at home," he said.
But former Democratic Sen. John Edwards, a 2008 presidential candidate, said he believed even stronger pressure was needed to reduce bloodshed and force political compromise in Iraq, regardless of what top military advisers say in their progress report next month.
Every defense funding bill Congress sends to Bush should set a timetable for Iraq, and Democrats should be willing to filibuster if necessary to force action, he said.
"Although they haven't done squat yet, I would give (al-Maliki) and the Sunnis at least a few months to reach a compromise. But they've got to know there's a deadline," Edwards said while campaigning in New Hampshire.
Warner appeared on NBC's "Meet the Press," and Cornyn spoke on ABC's "This Week."
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