WASHINGTON -- Republicans increasingly are backing a new approach in the Iraq war that could become the party's mantra come September. It would mean narrowly limited missions for US troops in Iraq, but would let President Bush decide when troops should leave.
So far, the idea has not attracted the attention of Democratic leaders. They are under substantial pressure by antiwar groups to consider only legislation that orders troops from Iraq.
But the GOP approach quickly is becoming the attractive alternative for Republican lawmakers who want to challenge Bush on the unpopular war without backtracking from their past assertions that it would be disastrous to set deadlines for troop withdrawals.
"This is a necessary adjustment in the national debate to reintroduce bipartisanship, to stop the 'gotcha' politics that are going on that seem to be driven by fringes on both sides and change the terms of the discussion," said Representative Phil English, Republican of Pennsylvania.
English is among the more than 40 Republicans in the House and Senate who are sponsoring legislation intended to shift the mission of US troops. Several other GOP lawmakers, facing close elections next year and a strong antiwar sentiment in their districts, say they are considering this approach.
"Settling Sunni-Shi'ite rivalries over who occupies what street in Baghdad is not in the vital interest of the United States," said Representative Heather Wilson, Republican of New Mexico, who said she is considering her options.
Bush's top military commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, is expected to tell Congress in September that more time is needed to determine whether a massive US-led security push initiated in January is working.
The message is not likely to be well received on Capitol Hill. Democrats have criticized the strategy as escalating a failing war; Republicans say they want to see progress made by fall.
GOP support has proved crucial to Bush in stalling antiwar proposals in the Democratic-run Congress. Legislation ordering US troops out of Iraq has passed repeatedly in the House only to sink in the Senate, where Republicans threaten a filibuster and Democrats fall short of the 60 votes needed to cut off debate.
House Democrats plan to try again this week with a bill that would begin a pullout this fall. Republicans are expected to overwhelmingly oppose it. But many Republicans who oppose setting an end date for combat say it makes sense to focus on the mission.
The idea of changing the mission gained prominence last December when the Iraq Study Group concluded Bush should do more to hand over combat to Iraqi forces. The bipartisan commission envisioned a diplomatic push, with US troops remaining in the region primarily to supply and train the Iraqi Army and to target terrorists.
Since then, about 40 Republicans and 31 Democrats have signed on to legislation by Representative Mark Udall, Democrat of Colorado, and Senator Ken Salazar, Democrat of Colorado, that urges Bush to embrace the commission's recommendations.
A much smaller, though growing number of Republicans supports requiring that Bush submit to Congress a detailed, new mission. They include English, Representative Michael N. Castle of Delaware, Senator John Warner of Virginia, and Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana.
Senator Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, favors binding legislation that would order Bush to restrict the mission of US troops to counterterrorism, training Iraqis, and protecting US assets.