By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007
Senate Republicans for a second time blocked a symbolic attempt by Democrats to reject President Bush's troop increase yesterday, but GOP defections were higher than before, suggesting Republican cracks as the Iraq war dominates Congress's agenda.
With the 56 to 34 vote, Democrats fell shy of the 60 votes required to kick off debate on a nonbinding resolution passed by the House last week that expresses support for the troops but criticizes Bush's decision to expand combat ranks by more than 20,000 troops. Senate Democrats picked up five new Republican allies in their effort to advance the resolution, bringing the GOP total to seven.
But the fate of the resolution is now very much in doubt. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) announced after the vote that he would not bring up the resolution again. Both sides instead are girding for the next phase, a confrontation over war funding, with some Democrats determined to exercise the power of the purse to influence Iraq strategy.
As Congress struggled to find its voice in the Iraq debate, the administration intensified its own campaign to convince the American public that the conflict remains winnable. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice paid a surprise visit to Baghdad yesterday, announcing that the increase in troops was bringing "new hope and a new optimism" to the besieged city. Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki assured Bush on Friday that the buildup had already achieved "fabulous success."
Those optimistic pronouncements appeared to have little impact on the Senate floor yesterday, where a rare Saturday session made for a dramatic political tableau. Presidential candidates jetted in from various primary states, having canceled visits to popular diners and town-hall meetings to cast their vote. They did not all show. One of the 10 absentees was Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), a supporter of the Bush plan, who was campaigning in Iowa.
Most Democrats were already seated at their desks when the roll call began shortly before 2 p.m. The only Democrat who missed the vote was Sen. Tim Johnson (S.D.), who is recovering from brain surgery. Democratic Sens. Robert P. Casey Jr. (Pa.) and Max Baucus (Mont.) canceled plans to visit Iraq this weekend and were present on the floor. Their traveling companions, GOP Sens. Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and Bob Corker (Tenn.), went ahead with the trip and missed the Senate action.
The resolution was identical to a measure that passed the House on Friday, with modest Republican support. "Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect the members of the United States Armed Forces who are serving or who have served bravely and honorably in Iraq," the resolution states. And it adds, "Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on January 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq."
Reid said he would not try a third time to put the Senate on record against the troop increase. But he said the Iraq debate would continue when the Senate returns Feb. 26 from a week-long recess and turns to legislation to enact homeland security recommendations from the Sept. 11 commission.
Reid promised that both sides would be allowed to offer Iraq-related amendments to that bill. And Congress will soon debate Bush's request for $100 billion in additional funding for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan for the current fiscal year. In the House, Democrats are moving to fully fund the president's war request, under the condition that the administration follow strict standards for training and equipping troops.
During separate conversations with U.S. and Iraqi officials in Baghdad yesterday, Rice referred to the looming skirmishes in Washington over the troop buildup and funding request.
"Some of the debate in Washington is in fact indicative of the concerns that the American people have about the prospects of success if Iraqi leadership doesn't do what it needs to do," Rice told reporters during a roundtable discussion at the house of the U.S. ambassador to Iraq yesterday afternoon.
"I think there's a new spirit here to try to do those things," she said. "The input appears to be there. The political support appears to be there."
But Democrats believe they are playing a strong hand in the Iraq debate. Polls show that most voters oppose a troop increase, and the GOP's heavy losses in the November elections were widely interpreted as a call for more aggressive vetting of Bush's Iraq strategy.
As soon as Bush announced the military buildup early last month, Democratic leaders considered ways to officially register an objection. Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) agreed to begin work on a nonbinding resolution, believing it was the easiest vote politically, including for Republicans who are disaffected by Bush's leadership on Iraq.
But in the Senate, Republicans decided to offer their own nonbinding measure, asserting that Congress would not cut off troop funding. Some Democrats opposed to the Iraq war want to target Pentagon spending as a way to force a withdrawal of troops.
Reid refused to allow a vote on the GOP measure, explaining that he wanted to keep the debate focused on the troop increase. Republicans now have twice voted this month to block a nonbinding resolution, on grounds that Reid was not playing fair. In spirited floor speeches in recent days, Democrats taunted their GOP colleagues for throwing up procedural hurdles to protect Bush from a potentially embarrassing repudiation.
"They are trying to divert attention from the issue at hand," Reid said of Republicans yesterday. "They'd like to turn the Senate into a procedural quagmire. They want to hide behind weak and misleading arguments about the Senate's rules or a senator's right to offer amendments. These arguments are diversions."
But Republicans accused Democrats of hiding behind the Senate rulebook to avoid the funding question.
"The reason we're here on a Saturday playing stupid political games while people are off in Iraq trying to win this war is because our colleagues on the other side of the aisle are afraid to take a vote on cutting off funding," blasted Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.), in a speech before the vote.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would not relent. "I think the majority of Senate Republicans have made it clear again today, and are highly likely to do that again in the future, that when we turn to this issue, we're going to insist on voting on funding the troops," the Kentucky Republican said.
The White House issued a statement saying "this week's voting gave the world a glimpse of democracy's vigor," but it also welcomed the funding showdown.
"The next votes should provide unmistakable assurance of this nation's resolve in achieving success, supporting the cause of democracy, and stopping terrorist forces in their ultimate aim of bringing their violence to our shores," the White House said.
Seven Republicans voted with the Democrats to allow the debate to proceed, including Sens. John W. Warner (Va.), Chuck Hagel (Neb.), Gordon Smith (Ore.), Norm Coleman (Minn.), Arlen Specter (Pa.), Olympia J. Snowe (Maine) and Susan M. Collins (Maine). When Republicans voted to block a similar, albeit lengthier, resolution earlier this month, only Collins and Coleman broke ranks. Among these Republicans, all but Specter and Snowe are up for reelection in 2008.
The Republican senators aside from McCain, Kyl and Corker who were absent yesterday were Robert F. Bennett (Utah), Christopher S. Bond (Mo.), Thad Cochran (Miss.), John Ensign (Nev.), Orrin G. Hatch (Utah) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.) voted with Republicans.
The seven Republican defectors are all on record opposing the Bush plan. Several other GOP senators, including Sens. Sam Brownback (Kan.) and George Voinovich (Ohio), have expressed concerns, but they voted with their party yesterday. Warner was the chief author of the earlier nonbinding resolution on Iraq to come before the Senate. That version was shelved last week for the simpler House text.
"I feel that the Senate, the Senate of the United States of America, an institution revered throughout the world, should have the right to go forward and debate this critical issue before America today, before the whole world," Warner said. "I think we've come to the point in time where we must move forward."