WASHINGTON – Sen. Norm Coleman, the Minnesota Republican, would rather not be in the position of publicly disagreeing with President Bush.

But when it comes to Iraq, Republican lawmakers on Capitol Hill are breaking away, leaving Bush to lay out his new plan without the usually reliable array of GOP support.

“I don’t want to embarrass the president, but my position is clear,” said Coleman, who visited Iraq last month. “I do not believe that a surge in troops is going to solve the fundamental problem we have.”

Coleman and other Republicans are becoming increasingly public with their view that the ongoing violence in Baghdad requires a political solution, not a military one. “Iraqis have to decide they’re going to stop killing themselves,” he said.

That Democrats are aggressively opposing Bush’s plan to boost the number of troops in Iraq is hardly surprising. The midterm elections that brought them to power this year turned, in large part, on voters’ dissatisfaction with the war.

Democratic leaders in the House and the Senate say they are talking to their Republican colleagues, hoping to persuade many of them to support a non-binding resolution that would express disapproval about escalating the war.

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md., said Wednesday that while those conversations are taking place, Republicans are arriving at their opinions independent of Democratic persuasion.

“I think you’re seeing the Republicans respond to what is the overwhelming sentiment of the country, and to what is the reality of the military’s observation that the proposals will not work,” Hoyer said.

Sen. Dick Durbin, the assistant Senate majority leader from Illinois, said in an interview there is no question that Democrats could pass some sort of resolution expressing disapproval of the war in Iraq and with Bush’s handling of that war.

“But many of us believe the most effective message from Capitol Hill is a bipartisan message,” said Durbin, who later gave the official Democratic response to Bush’s speech. “If the president believes support from his own party at risk, he may have second thoughts.”

Many Republicans say they have formed their opinions from traveling to Iraq and the surrounding region and talking to military officials there.

“Based on the trip I took to Iraq last month, I concluded it would be a mistake to increase the overall level of troops in Iraq,” said Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine.

Collins said she shared her opinion with Bush, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Defense Robert Gates that a political solution is required to address the civil unrest, not a boost in troops.

So did Sen. Gordon Smith, R-Ore., who delivered a lengthy speech on the Senate floor in December, outlining his increasing frustration with the war. He has told the president that he opposed a so-called “surge” in troops.

Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, was similarly unimpressed with the idea of putting more troops at risk, describing her view as “deep skepticism.”

Also not persuaded is Sen. George Voinovich, R-Ohio, a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“At this point I am skeptical that a surge in troops alone will bring an end to sectarian violence and the insurgency that is fomenting instability in Iraq,” Voinovich said. “The generals who have served there do not believe additional troops alone will help. And my faith in Prime Minister (Nouri) al-Maliki’s political will to make the hard choices necessary to bring about a political solution is fragile at best.”

Like many of his colleagues, Voinovich said he wants to see a political solution between Sunni Arabs and Shiite militias.

“And I want real evidence that a potential surge in troops will do more good than harm and will not exacerbate the existing violence in Iraq,” he added.

Lawmakers who are typically supportive of the president’s policies gave themselves some distance in the hours before Bush’s address Wednesday.

“I’m open to the president’s plan, but I need to learn a whole lot more of the details,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La..

His constituents have grown weary of the war, he explained. “I don’t know anyone who’s not,” he said. “It doesn’t mean we shouldn’t or can’t go forward, but it makes it a lot more difficult.”

Sen. John Warner of Virginia, the ranking Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, has expressed his own reservations, but urged his colleagues to spend some time mulling Bush’s proposal in the coming days.

“What he says merits thoughtful consideration by the Senate,” Warner said.

Still, Warner is unhappy with the strife dominating Iraq, something he has witnessed firsthand.

“Young men and women in uniform should not be caught in the crossfire of a civil war started with who should have succeeded Muhammad in 650 A.D.,” he said.

(c) 2007, Chicago Tribune.

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