Reluctantly, the Senate's Weekend Warriors

By Dana Milbank
Friday, February 16, 2007

Now this is war.

After four years of fighting in Iraq, and two weeks of trying to force senators to debate the conflict, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday wheeled out the ultimate weapon.

He ordered his colleagues to work on Saturday.

To the average American, this would be an inconvenience. To a senator, a Saturday vote is a hardship reserved for national crises such as impeachment or Terri Schiavo. Votes have been held on Saturday only five times in the past 10 years.

"Time is of the essence," Reid told a rapt audience in the Senate television studio yesterday afternoon. "That's why the Senate will have another Iraq vote on Saturday."

The "vote on Saturday is a crucial vote not just for the moment or for the week, but for the history of America," added an overwrought Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.). "We're calling their bluff. We're staying here. Now vote yes or no."

But in trying to force Republicans to debate Iraq, Reid caused untold pain and suffering for his Democratic colleagues, many of whom prefer to spend their weekends running for president. Hillary Clinton was supposed to be campaigning in New Hampshire on Saturday. Barack Obama had plans to be in South Carolina and Virginia. Joe Biden had an Iowa trip scheduled. Chris Dodd had events scheduled in South Carolina.

And then there was Republican John McCain, who had an Iowa engagement, and all those senators on both sides planning to leave on trips for the Presidents' Day recess.

The Post's Shailagh Murray asked Reid whether he had considered the burden his Saturday plan was placing on his ambitious colleagues.

"I'm confident they will be -- most of them will be here," he hedged.

Moments after Reid's bombshell, one presidential candidate, Sam Brownback (R-Kan.), went to the Senate floor to voice his dissent. "I don't think that is a fair or appropriate process for this body to follow," he said. Particularly because he had plans to attend the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Florida on Saturday.

The prospective loss of his Saturday caused great distress to the Senate minority leader, Mitch McConnell (Ky.). He scheduled a news conference for 4 p.m., then moved it to 4:15, then 4:45, then back to 4:30, and finally arrived at 4:40. There, he was asked how his colleagues felt about surrendering their Saturday. "You'll have to ask all of them," he said tightly.

"We could have had a civilized, well-structured debate," McConnell lamented, "but that appears to be not possible at the moment."

It's not entirely clear why Senate Republicans were so determined to avoid a debate. If it goes anything like the three-day House debate this week, the world will little note nor long remember what they say.

House members spent much of their debate exchanging playground-style taunts. Each side tried to tar the other with supporting a "stay the course" plan -- a phrase that, not long ago, was seen as an expression of resolve.

"After months of campaigning against 'stay the course,' the Democrats are proposing just that," said Patrick McHenry (R-N.C.). Countered Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.): "Stay the course? My Lord, that is not remotely what we are talking about here."

"The bottom line of this resolution tells the president to stay the course," insisted Pete Hoekstra (R-Mich.). Offered Steve Cohen (D-Tenn.): "The Republicans have come in here today and said that we need to in essence stay the course."

When they weren't bickering about the "stay the course" label, lawmakers fought about whose policy qualified as a "plan" for Iraq.

"If you have an alternative plan, introduce it," Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) challenged.

"What is the plan, Mr. President?" asked Carolyn Cheeks Kilpatrick (D-Mich.).

"I have presented this Congress with a 12-point plan," said Dennis Kucinich (D-Ohio).

Fortunately, Ric Keller (R-Fla.) was on hand to restore gravity to the debate. He spoke about lawn care as a metaphor for Iraq:

"Imagine your next-door neighbor refuses to mow his lawn and the weeds are all the way up to his waist. You decide you are going to mow his lawn for him every single week. The neighbor never says thank you, he hates you, and sometimes he takes out a gun and shoots at you. Under these circumstances, do you keep mowing his lawn forever?"

Hearing such soaring rhetoric from the other chamber only made Senate Democrats more determined to have their own debate. "We demand an up-or-down vote on the resolution that the House is debating," Reid declared. He went to the Senate floor and announced that the vote will begin at 1:45 pm on Saturday. "There's really no time that meets everyone's expectations," he observed.

It appeared Democrats were serious. Then, just before 5 p.m., came official confirmation: an e-mail titled "Revised Hillary Clinton New Hampshire Schedule." The candidate's "Conversation with Granite Staters," which was to have been held at 2:30 Saturday in the Dover High School cafeteria, had been scrapped.

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