Iraq Resolution Typifies Rift in Senate

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) began the year with a vow to cooperate.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), left, and Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) began the year with a vow to cooperate. (By David Scull -- Bloomberg News)
By Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, February 11, 2007

Since the new Congress convened, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) have emerged as the Senate's odd couple, the even-tempered McConnell hurling parliamentary brickbats at the quirky Reid with an even smile and a "Who, me?" shrug.

But though McConnell may be winning procedural battles -- on ethics legislation and a minimum-wage increase and by stopping a high-profile Iraq debate -- Reid, at least this past week, may have played the stronger hand on the war issue, on which public opinion is clearly on his side.

The drama started Monday evening, when McConnell rallied GOP senators to block from the Senate floor a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's plan to increase troops in Iraq. But since then, the headlines have been withering, blaming Republicans for sidetracking the debate. Rank-and-file Republican senators are grumbling and threatening to break with McConnell, as the much ballyhooed war debate has morphed into a procedural spat with the GOP playing defense.

"I'm very surprised how they handled this," Reid said of McConnell and his Republican leadership team. "It was so obvious. I just think they miscalculated. And it keeps getting worse."

Julian E. Zelizer, a congressional expert at Boston University, said the Republicans may be "on top" in the short term, but they must be careful how their tactics play with the public in the long term. "They can't look like obstructionists, especially on this war resolution," he said. "This is wartime lawmaking, not peacetime lawmaking."

McConnell asserts that the conflict is less about political tactics than about ensuring "fair treatment" for the Senate GOP, which is barely in the minority.

"This is not about keeping score," the Republican leader told reporters on Thursday, his monotone voice bristling slightly. "This is about an extraordinarily important issue. The American people are not happy with the current status of the Iraq war. Republican senators are not happy about it."

Looking back, did he have any regrets?

"The only thing we could have done differently would have been to capitulate," McConnell shot back. "That didn't happen Monday and won't happen in the future."

Reid and McConnell began the year vowing to cooperate, but so far they have clashed over practically every important issue to come before the Senate. Democrats control the Senate by the slimmest majority, 51 to 49, presenting formidable challenges to both party leaders and suggesting that procedural one-upmanship could become a permanent part of the narrative. "That's just how you have to do things here," Reid said, expressing the relatively sanguine view that he and McConnell are forced by circumstances to take.

As a tactician, McConnell, 64, a four-term veteran, has shown in recent weeks that he is one tough competitor. Both he and Reid, 67, are former party whips, jobs that require a deep knowledge of Senate rules and an instinctive feel for political and ideological idiosyncrasies. They both also sit on the Appropriations Committee, the chief spigot for federal spending, where Republicans and Democrats traditionally have supported each other's pet programs.

The pair share low-key temperaments, although Reid has the more colorful personality. The son of a Nevada miner, Reid became a successful Las Vegas trial lawyer before entering politics, and he views himself as an outsider among the Washington elite. McConnell, who is married to Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao, is a staunch conservative who is regarded as one of President Bush's closest allies in Congress. He has vowed to do whatever he can to prevent Congress from passing a resolution criticizing Bush's war policies.

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