Democrats Maneuver To Force Iraq Votes

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Senate Democratic leaders are planning a rare all-night session tonight, employing theatrics and scheduling votes that they hope will chip away at Republican resolve to back President Bush's Iraq war strategy.

Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) had hoped to convince Republicans to allow a simple-majority vote on a Democratic proposal to withdraw most U.S. troops from Iraq by next spring. But GOP leaders held firm to a 60-vote threshold for passage -- a routine maneuver in today's closely divided Senate but a number Democrats have been unable to meet all year. And Republicans decried Reid's decision for a marathon session as a stunt.

Democrats employed similar delaying tactics when they were in the minority, but Reid said the gravity of the Iraq war calls for a straightforward debate, free of political or procedural gimmicks.

"We're going to continue working on this until we get a vote on this amendment," Reid said. "It's unfortunate that President Bush has proven, beyond any doubt, that he won't listen to the Congress or the American people unless he's forced to, and that's what this amendment does."

Given the GOP's position, Reid said he would require 60 votes on all Republican-backed Iraq proposals, which could spill the Senate debate well into next week. "It's 'turnabout is fair play,' " Reid said.

The Iraq measures, all aimed at changing the U.S. mission to varying degrees, are pending as amendments to the annual defense authorization bill, which Democrats are using to try force an immediate change in the president's war strategy.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) responded to Reid with a counteroffer: an automatic 60-vote threshold for all key Iraq amendments, eliminating the time-consuming process of clearing procedural hurdles. Democrats agreed to similar terms on several Iraq votes earlier this year, and all the controversial war-related votes held since Democrats took control of the Senate in January have required 60 "yeas" to pass.

"It's a shame that we find ourselves in the position that we're in," McConnell said. "It produces a level of animosity and unity on the minority side that makes it more difficult for the majority to pass important legislation."

Assuming neither side blinks, the Senate is expected to vote Wednesday on the Democratic amendment, offered by Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl M. Levin (Mich.) and Sen. Jack Reed (R.I.). It would require Bush to begin reducing the number of U.S. troops in Iraq within four months, while reassigning remaining forces to specific missions, including the training of Iraqi security forces and counterterrorism operations. Under the proposal, most U.S. troops would leave Iraq by April 30, 2008.

Three Republicans have signed on to the plan: Sens. Olympia J. Snowe (Maine), Gordon Smith (Ore.) and Chuck Hagel (Neb.). Support is expected to top 50 votes but fall short of the 60 required.

Republicans are more enthusiastic about two other pending amendments. One, authored by Sen. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), would turn the 79 recommendations of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group into U.S. law. The other, offered by Sens. John W. Warner (R-Va.) and Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.), two of the GOP's most respected foreign policy voices, would require Bush to begin planning for troop reductions or redeployments to begin in January.

Reid said he expects those measures to reach the floor this week, but he added, referring to the Levin-Reed amendment, "We'll do one at a time, see what happens on this."

Bush is pressing Congress to hold its fire until September, when Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker deliver a highly anticipated assessment of the war. But a consensus appears to be emerging in the Senate that the administration cannot wait until autumn to consider its next steps.

So far, Reid has dismissed the Salazar and Warner-Lugar measures as too meek because they mostly encourage, rather than force, Bush to change course. "It's like grading your own test," he said. "We have to force the president to change this; otherwise we're going to have American soldiers killed for the next 18 months unnecessarily."

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