The Upshot of the Debate: No Debate

By Dana Milbank
Tuesday, February 6, 2007

Perhaps too much was expected of an organization that began its "Morning Business" yesterday at 2 in the afternoon.

Still, the U.S. Senate set a new standard for procrastination last night when lawmakers decided, after nearly four years of war in Iraq, that they were not quite ready to have a debate about the conflict. Among those who voted against having this modest discussion was Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), the sponsor of the resolution that was to be debated.

Like arms negotiators in years past bickering about the shape of the table, the senators dedicated themselves to fighting about the terms of the debate. They spent the better part of an hour just quibbling over the speaking order.

"I'd like to inquire: At what point can other senators speak?" Warner queried.

Sen. Trent Lott (R-Miss.) asked that "I have 10 minutes to be followed by the time that Senator Byrd has."

But Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) wanted to give an hour-long speech before Lott spoke.

"You want the full hour in one block?" asked the presiding officer, Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.).

"Of course!" Byrd shot back. "An hour is an hour."

Laughter rippled through the gallery. Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) smiled. "If I could suggest, to speed this up, instead of taking the five minutes Senator Durbin was going to yield to me, I would defer to let Senator Lott speak for five minutes," he offered.

The matter was resolved. Byrd took the floor and spoke for 44 minutes -- about coal mining.

Those waiting for the much-anticipated Iraq debate in the Senate will have to wait a while longer. Republican leaders, eager to avoid a public airing of views on the unpopular war, raised procedural objections. Democratic leaders, figuring that public pressure would force Republicans to capitulate, refused to meet their demand that all resolutions on the Iraq war get 60 votes to pass. And each side got tangled up in talking points as it tried to blame the other for preventing a discussion.

"We are, in effect, being denied a fair process here for this extremely important debate," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) declared at a news conference in his office.

But this assertion of importance was quickly contradicted by McConnell's deputy, Lott, who was sitting next to him. "We're going to produce, if anything, a nonbinding resolution that has no force in fact," he said.

McConnell took his act to the Senate floor, where Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was wielding a 30-inch pointing stick, with which he had been jabbing a poster. When he spied McConnell, Reid began to thrust the pointer in the direction of the minority leader.

"Is there anyone who believes the Senate should remain silent on the most pressing issue facing the country today?" Reid demanded. "Unfortunately, Mr. President, the answer is 'yes.' According to the Republican leader, all Republican senators will vote not to proceed."

McConnell parried Reid's thrust. "Make no mistake about it," he said. "This vote at 5 o'clock" -- the one that scuttled the Iraq debate -- "doesn't have anything whatsoever to do with scuttling the Iraq debate. We welcome the debate. . . . But the minority will insist on fair treatment."

"Fairness?" Reid sputtered. "You start throwing the 60-vote number around when you have something to hide or stall." Reid knew that, because he has thrown the 60-vote number around to block some of President Bush's judicial nominees.

The Reid tirade temporarily got McConnell off his talking points. "Let me just say there are many members on my side who would argue that we shouldn't be having this debate this week at all," he admitted. "I hope none of those watching this on C-SPAN or any people up in the gallery are confused."

Why would anybody be confused?

It was already tense in the chamber, but Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) hadn't had his turn yet. "If the Republicans in the Senate cannot swallow the thin soup of the Warner resolution, how will they ever stomach a real debate on the war in Iraq?" he taunted.

Republican leaders were having some trouble with such questions, so Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), sponsor of an Iraq resolution celebrating the troops, called a news conference. "I think we ought to have a debate," he said, "but I'm not sure we should be passing resolutions with no impact." Gregg could not explain why he made an exception for his own nonbinding resolution.

Out on the Senate floor, Warner was similarly tangled. "No matter how strongly I feel about my resolution, I shall vote with my leader," he announced, explaining why he was opposing debate on his own legislation.

A few lawmakers took the novel tack of addressing the merits of the resolutions themselves. Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), the only member of the Democratic caucus to side with Republicans, said the Warner resolution, which objects to Bush's troop increase in Iraq, would "hearten our enemies." Quoting Abraham Lincoln at Gettysburg, Lieberman argued passionately that "what we say here is heard . . . by al-Qaeda terrorists eager for evidence that America's will is breaking."

But the argument quickly turned back to the debate about the debate. "They are trying to avoid a debate on this matter," charged Reid.

"The Republican side of the aisle is ready for this debate," vowed McConnell.

Minutes later, all but two Republicans voted against allowing the debate. And, as the hour approached 6 p.m., the Senate returned to morning business. "I'd like to speak about two issues that have been in the news lately," announced Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa). "The tax gap and the minimum-wage bill."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company