By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 8, 2007
Senate Republicans who earlier this week helped block deliberations on a resolution opposing President Bush's new troop deployments in Iraq changed course yesterday and vowed to use every tactic at their disposal to ensure a full and open debate.
In a letter distributed yesterday evening to Senate leaders, John W. Warner (Va.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.) and five other GOP supporters of the resolution threatened to attach their measure to any bill sent to the floor in the coming weeks. Noting that the war is the "most pressing issue of our time," the senators declared: "We will explore all of our options under the Senate procedures and practices to ensure a full and open debate."
The letter sent to Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) was not more specific about the Republican senators' strategy for reviving the war debate. But under the chamber's rules, senators have wide latitude in slowing the progress of legislation and in offering amendments, regardless of whether they have anything to do with the bill.
The letter began circulating yesterday evening after it became apparent the Senate was deadlocked over the war resolution and Reid was prepared to move on to other matters. McConnell and many in his party have aggressively defended their decision to block the bipartisan resolution as an issue of fairness because Democrats would not agree to GOP procedural demands.
But some Republicans were uneasy about appearing to have stymied the debate. The letter appeared so suddenly that, although it was addressed to Reid, the Democratic leader had not seen his copy before Warner read the text on the Senate floor.
"Monday's procedural vote should not be interpreted as any lessening of our resolve to go forward advocating the concepts" of the resolution, the letter said. "The current stalemate is unacceptable to us and to the people of this country."
House Democratic leaders are attempting to formulate their own nonbinding expression of disapproval of Bush's decision to send an additional 21,500 troops to battle, and they intend to devote three days next week to debating it.
A top Pentagon leader weighed in yesterday on the war debate and appeared to undercut the argument advanced by the White House and many GOP lawmakers that a congressional debate challenging the Bush plan would hurt troop morale.
"There's no doubt in my mind that the dialogue here in Washington strengthens our democracy. Period," Marine Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, testified before the House Armed Services Committee. He added that potential enemies may take some comfort from the rancor but said they "don't have a clue how democracy works."
Congress is grappling with several nonbinding resolutions, each of which addresses Bush's deployment plan, even as public support for the war declines and conditions on the ground grow increasingly perilous. The debate has particularly vexed Republicans, who are reluctant to abandon Bush at a critical moment but who also regard the party's defeat in the November midterm elections as a signal that voters want Congress to challenge White House war policy more aggressively.
The Senate was poised to debate a nonbinding resolution opposing the additional troop deployment and calling for a diplomatic initiative to settle the conflict in Iraq. Republicans refused to allow the resolution to reach the floor, relying on a standard procedural objection.
Five of the seven Senate signatories to yesterday's letter -- including Warner, the bipartisan resolution's chief author -- had voted Monday to block the debate. By showing party solidarity, they had hoped to pressure Democrats into allowing the consideration of other nonbinding measures, namely two that are more supportive of the administration's policy. But Democratic leaders refused to relent, and the long-awaited war debate -- or at least the opening chapter -- ended almost as soon as it began.
The Republican senators attempted in their letter to clear up the apparent contradiction. "Monday's procedural vote should not be interpreted as any lessening of our resolve to go forward," the senators insisted. But they voiced the GOP leadership's view that other resolutions should receive an equal vetting.
"The Senate should be allowed to work its will on our resolution as well as the concepts being brought forward by other senators," the letter stated.
Democrats brushed off the Republicans' declaration as too little, too late. Reid spokesman Jim Manley said in a statement: "Senator Reid gave Senator Warner and the others a chance to vote for their own resolution on Monday, but only two of them chose to do so. Hopefully this letter signifies that the others have had a change of heart, and will be willing to vote for their own resolution in the future."
After reading the text on the Senate floor, Warner hurried back to his office, declining to answer questions. He would not specify whether he and his allies would seek to block specific bills, including a huge spending package that the Senate is expected to take up today, to fund government activities for the current fiscal year. Warner did indicate whether he will attempt to amend the funding package with his resolution.
In the letter, the senators said they will offer the resolution "where possible" on bills as they come before the Senate.
House Democrats had hoped for a large bipartisan Senate vote on Warner's resolution to create momentum in the House and to provide maximum pressure on Republicans to go along. But with the Senate at a standstill, House leaders are considering a straightforward resolution that opposes the troop increase, without the multiple provisions that complicated Warner's text. Senior House Democrats predicted that their measure will attract overwhelming party support and possibly as many as 30 GOP votes.
Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.