By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, February 7, 2007; A11
Senate leaders squabbled yesterday over how to consider resolutions opposing President Bush's plan for more troops in Iraq, but the quarrel did not stop lawmakers from launching an informal debate on the chamber floor over the war.
"The only people who believe there is a workable military solution for the conflict in Iraq is the Bush administration," said Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), who advocates requiring Bush to complete the removal of American troops from Iraq within a year.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) called Democrats disingenuous for declaring support for U.S. troops while denouncing their commander in chief's strategy. Troops serving in Iraq "won't buy it," McCain said. "A vote of no confidence is a vote of no confidence."
Senate leaders made little progress yesterday toward agreeing on the terms of votes on a series of nonbinding resolutions, each of which addresses Bush's decision to deploy an additional 21,500 troops.
"This is all a game to divert attention from the fact that we have before us now an issue that the American people want us to address," Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said on the Senate floor, nodding across the aisle to Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).
"What we're asking by any standard is reasonable," answered McConnell. "It is not too late to have the debate this week."
Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) disagreed, declaring last night that the Iraq debate was over and that Democrats would move on today to other legislation.
Meanwhile, House Democratic leaders scheduled a war debate to begin next Tuesday, culminating with a vote aimed at repudiating Bush's plan.
House Democrats had intended to work with the resolution offered by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.), which Senate Democrats have rallied behind. Instead, after assessing the morass on the other side of the Capitol, they are now considering a more narrow statement of objection to Bush's proposal.
In the three days of debate, Each House member will be given five minutes to state his or her views, Democrats said. That is a considerable amount in the House, where speeches typically run one minute.
"We're going to do what's been missing -- a serious debate on the war," said Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), a member of the House leadership.
Durbin, saying that the "plug had been pulled" on the nonbinding resolution, urged his Senate colleagues to look ahead to other Iraq-related showdowns as future vehicles for opposing Bush's war proposals.
Reid suggested on the Senate floor last night that the House's nonbinding resolution, assuming it passes, could make its way to the Senate floor.
Republicans remained reluctant to give up on the current debate. At one point yesterday afternoon, upon being told of Reid's refusal to relent to GOP terms, McConnell indicated that talks would resume in the near future. "Stay tuned," he said.
McConnell offered the day's biggest concession, proposing to shelve a resolution written by McCain that would establish tough benchmarks for the Iraqi government without opposing the additional U.S. troops.
But Republicans continued to demand that the two remaining resolutions -- one written by Warner and Sen. Carl M. Levin (D-Mich.), and a pro-Bush proposal from Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) -- meet a 60-vote threshold to pass.
Republicans are advocating the Gregg resolution because they know, as do Democrats, that only it could garner 60 votes. Gregg's proposal would recognize the power of the president to deploy troops as well as the "responsibility" of Congress to fund them.
Democrats regard the measure as a political stunt but are loath to go on the record opposing it, for fear of giving the impression that they would harm troops in the field. They also recognize that a vote in favor of Gregg would amount to a tacit endorsement of Bush's troop plan.
"I find it almost incomprehensible that the Democratic leader doesn't want a vote on this language. It is not radical language. It is fairly reasonable language," Gregg insisted to reporters yesterday afternoon.
Speaking later on the Senate floor, Reid questioned why Gregg and his GOP allies were advocating a measure that did not directly address the troop deployment. "You know what he kind of reminds me of?" Reid said of Gregg. "Somebody who comes into the basketball game not to score points, but to kind of rough people up."
Gregg responded sarcastically: "I appreciate the senator's generous comments. I take them as a compliment."
Amid the taunting, serious discussion of the war continued. Testifying yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates revealed that the Pentagon, the Joint Chiefs of Staff and other agencies are devising a "sophisticated checklist or matrix" to measure the Iraqi government's performance in meeting various benchmarks linked to Bush's new strategy. Gates added that he is considering alternative courses of action in case the Baghdad security operation fails.
"I would be irresponsible if I weren't thinking about what the alternatives might be if that didn't happen," Gates testified. "But we, at this point, are planning for its success."
Gates said that one alternative he could envision would be pulling U.S. troops away from Iraq's most dangerous areas, presumably major cities. He added that he did not foresee what he called a "precipitous withdrawal."
Asked by Warner whether the current strategy marks the "last chance" in Iraq, Gates replied: "No, it is not the last chance."
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.