By Jonathan Weisman and Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, February 6, 2007
A long-awaited Senate showdown on the war in Iraq was shut down before it even started yesterday, when nearly all Republicans voted to stop the Senate from considering a resolution opposing President Bush's plan to send 21,500 additional combat troops into battle.
A day of posturing, finger-pointing and backroom wrangling came to nothing when Democratic and Republican leaders could not reach agreement on which nonbinding resolutions would be debated and allowed to come to a vote. The Senate's 49 to 47 vote last night to proceed to debate on Bush's new war policy fell 11 votes short of the 60 needed to break the logjam. Just two Republicans, Norm Coleman (Minn.) and Susan Collins (Maine), voted with the Democrats to proceed with the debate. Both are considered among the most vulnerable senators standing for reelection in 2008.
Republicans insisted that the impasse will soon be broken. But the leaders of the two parties appeared to be far from a compromise last night, and the White House has worked hard to block action on a resolution disapproving of the president's decision to boost troop levels.
"What you just saw was Republicans giving the president the green light to escalate in Iraq," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said after the vote. Reid contended that Republicans "are trying to avoid a debate on this matter."
Republicans said they have no desire to avoid a debate, asserting that they simply want a fair hearing on their proposals.
"We are ready and anxious to have this debate this week," said Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.).
Reid and McConnell were expected to resume negotiations today after conferring with lawmakers. With the tremendous national interest and media buildup to this week's confrontation, it would be extraordinary if the two sides did not reach an agreement on ground rules. But regardless of the outcome of the talks, Congress is certain to be consumed with Iraq in the months ahead.
A huge budget bill for the remainder of the current fiscal year comes before the Senate tomorrow, and Reid promised war amendments to that debate. Bush has requested $245 billion in funding for the war, to cover this year and next year, and that legislation is certain to become a magnet for Iraq concerns.
Next week, the Democratic-led House is expected to move forward with its version of the nonbinding resolutions stuck in the Senate.
"You can run, but you can't hide," Reid said. "We are going to debate Iraq."
At issue are four separate measures. The main resolution, worked out by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), would put the Senate on record as opposing the additional troop deployment while calling for a diplomatic initiative to settle the conflict. It would oppose a cutoff of funds for troops in the field of battle.
The Republican leadership's alternative, drafted by John McCain (R-Ariz.), Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.) and Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), would establish tough new benchmarks for the Iraqi government to achieve but would not oppose the planned deployment.
Two other versions appear at the heart of the impasse. The first, drafted by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), would staunchly back the White House and the president's decision to boost troop strength in Iraq. It recognizes the power of the president to deploy troops and the "responsibility" of Congress to fund them -- before stating that "Congress should not take any action that will endanger United States military forces in the field, including the elimination or reduction of funds."
The other proposed resolution, hastily written by Democrats, would simply oppose Bush's plan and insist that all troops are properly protected with body armor and other material.
Gregg appeared to struggle to define the purpose of his proposal, insisting at one point that it is vital to protecting U.S. troops but then acknowledging that none of the resolutions under consideration would have any impact. He added that he may offer his language in binding legislative form during the upcoming debate on war spending.
The Democratic leadership gave Republicans a choice: Allow all four versions to come to a vote, with a simple majority needed for passing any of them, or debate and vote on the Warner and McCain resolutions, with both needing 60 votes to pass.
McConnell wanted all four resolutions to meet a 60-vote threshold, for a simple reason: Both Democrats and Republicans think the only measure that could attract 60 votes is Gregg's, because Democrats would be concerned about the political ramifications of appearing to take action that might harm troops in battle.
"If Republicans cannot swallow the thin soup of the Warner resolution, how are they going to stomach a real debate on Iraq?" asked Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.).
Republicans struck a less combative tone. Senate Minority Whip Trent Lott (Miss.) dismissed Democratic charges as "a bunch of show and tell," and McConnell called the dispute nothing more than "a bump in the road."
The White House worked closely with Senate Republican leaders on strategy while conducting an aggressive outreach that involved assurances from military leaders to wary GOP senators, in addition to personal interventions by Bush.
On Friday, Republican senators met with Bush on a variety of issues, including Iraq. The president walked the lawmakers through his reasoning for the troop increase and asked for their support.
"He wanted us to clearly understand this was not just, he woke up on Thursday and decided this is what he was going to do," said Sen. Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), who has been critical of the escalation but is undecided on the resolutions. Murkowski also met with Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq.
The White House gave a measured response to yesterday's vote. "All sides have a right to be heard in this debate, and we support Senator McConnell's and the Republicans' right to be able to offer the amendments they want to offer," said White House spokeswoman Dana Perino.
Sen. John Cornyn, a Texas Republican who helped to rally his colleagues against moving ahead, said the vote was partly symbolic. "This is more of the principle that we're going to be a relevant minority and assert our rights to a fair process," he said. "They were either going to establish that they could roll us or that we'd be relevant in the process."
But Democrats believe Republicans may be losing politically, by defying what they perceive as a growing public desire for a robust war debate. Some Democratic senators were surprised that two Republican allies of Warner -- Collins and Coleman -- parted ways with their caucus and with Warner himself on the procedural vote.
After the vote, Collins issued a statement saying: "Since I returned from my third visit to Iraq in December, I have been convinced that it would be a mistake to send additional troops to Iraq. I believe that this is one of the most important issues facing our nation and that it is important for the Senate to go on record in opposition to the president's plan."
Collins continued: "It is my hope that the leadership will soon work out an agreement that will allow us to have a vote as soon as possible."
According to one senior Democratic aide, Reid left the Capitol last night confident that he is holding a winning hand. Negotiations between party leaders are expected to continue today, and Reid promised that the Senate will return to Iraq over and over until Democrats get a clean vote.
"Today, Senator McConnell led his Republican troops off a cliff," said Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), the primary architect of the Democrats' takeover of the Senate in November.