Campaigns Pause for Senate Vote

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), campaigning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he refused to return to Washington for a
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), campaigning in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, said he refused to return to Washington for a "purely political stunt" that is "insulting to the public and our soldiers." (By Scott Olson -- Getty Images)
By Jonathan Weisman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 18, 2007

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton rushed to Washington yesterday afternoon to join the Senate fracas over an Iraq war resolution after telling a New Hampshire audience hours earlier that she would rather lose support for her presidential bid than apologize for her vote in 2002 authorizing the military action.

Under mounting pressure from antiwar Democrats to make amends for her support for the U.S. invasion of Iraq, which she now says was a terrible mistake, Clinton (D-N.Y.) renewed her vow to end the war if she is elected president. But she refused to repudiate her vote, as former Democratic senator John Edwards has done.

"Obviously I would not vote that way again if we knew then what we now know," the Democratic presidential front-runner said during a town meeting in Dover. "But I have to say that if the most important thing to any of you is choosing someone who did not cast that vote or has said his vote was a mistake, then there are others to choose from. But to me the most important thing now is trying to end this war."

For Clinton and other presidential aspirants, yesterday posed a logistical challenge in trying to straddle the competing demands of a congressional debate over the course of the war and the early, critical phase of the 2008 presidential campaign. Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid's decision to hold a procedural vote Saturday on whether to consider a nonbinding House resolution critical of President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq forced them to scramble their campaign schedules to register votes of little consequence. The Senate fell four votes short of the 60 required to proceed to a floor vote on the resolution.

Clinton scrubbed one scheduled stop in New Hampshire but went ahead with the Dover town meeting before returning to Washington for the vote. In the Senate chamber, she sat composed and quiet in the back row.

Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) had planned to spend the day in Iowa but instead flew back to Washington for the vote, then returned for an evening event. Of all the Senate's presidential hopefuls, he was the only one to speak before the vote.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) hurriedly departed a campaign stop in South Carolina to cast his vote before hustling to a campaign appearance in Richmond and then boarding a plane to San Diego. Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) voted against moving to a debate on the war before rushing to catch a plane to Orlando, where he was to address religious broadcasters.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), one of his party's front-runners for the 2008 nomination, did not bother to show up. In Iowa yesterday, McCain defended his decision to stay away from Washington in defiant terms, condemning the Senate Democrats for scheduling a rare Saturday vote on what he described as a political charade. He ridiculed the action as a "purely political stunt" that was "insulting to the public and our soldiers" in Iraq.

Other Republicans who showed up for the vote joined in deriding the unusual session as mere grandstanding by Democratic presidential candidates mollifying the party's left flank.

"We're not working," fumed Sen. Lindsey O. Graham (R-S.C.). "We're having a political, theatrical debate that does more harm than good. There are a lot of people who are working on a Saturday, not us. We're trying to jockey for political position among ourselves for '08."

Brownback was perhaps the only presidential candidate in a quandary over the Senate vote. He has voiced serious concerns over Bush's Iraq policies but has cast himself as a conservative's conservative. Yesterday, he decided to stand by the president and his leadership.

"While I do not think a troop surge is the best course of action, I believe that the Senate should be allowed to vote on resolutions that would demonstrate support for the men and women serving in our military and guarantee they have the funds necessary to complete their mission," Brownback said.

But Clinton had the most to say about the war. A video posted on her campaign Web site detailed what she called a plan to end the war. That proposal would cap the number of troops in Iraq at the January level. "It would be against the law to send more," she said. In a nod to House Democratic plans, she endorsed mandates for the training and equipping of combat troops, proposing that the defense secretary would have to certify that the troops met such standards before they are deployed.

Leading House Democrats hope to condition Iraq deployments on a series of caveats: Combat troops would need a year's rest between tours of duty. Combat tours in Iraq could no longer be extended beyond a year. And the Pentagon's "stop loss" program, which keeps some officers in the military beyond their required years of service, would have to end.

Clinton offered no such details. The political centerpiece of her plan would require the president to seek new authorization for the war in Iraq if troop withdrawals do not begin within 90 days.

"Let me be clear," she stated for the camera. "If George Bush doesn't end this war before he leaves office, when I'm president, I will."

In her morning appearance in New Hampshire, she said Democrats cannot wait for bipartisan solutions to stanch the bleeding from a war that has cost more than 3,100 American lives and more than half a trillion tax dollars. "We have to end this war, and we can't do it without Republican votes," she said.

Graham tried to goad Democrats to go further and vote to cut off funding for the war. Senate Democrats have spent weeks refusing to allow a debate on a Republican resolution opposing any withholding of funds for the troops, and Graham ascribed the maneuvering purely to politics.

"Here's the crux of the matter: 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," he said. "The reason they don't want to be on record is because the radical left will eat Democrat '08 hopefuls' lunch. They will create a fight on that side of monumental proportions."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company