By Shailagh Murray and Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, July 19, 2007
Senate Democrats halted their quest to change President Bush's war strategy yesterday after Republicans blocked a proposal to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq.
After the vote, which followed a rare all-night debate, Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) startled colleagues by announcing that the Senate would not vote on several other proposals intended to force Bush to revisit his war plans. Although war critics in both parties had supported the measures, Reid and other Democratic leaders dismissed them as too weak. Instead, they are holding firm in their bid to persuade GOP critics of Bush's Iraq policy to embrace more aggressive Democratic measures to begin withdrawing troops.
Reid's move was hailed by antiwar groups, which have urged Democrats not to compromise. But his decision may also have the effect of providing Bush with an opportunity that he has wanted: 60 more days to make his case that the war is making progress.
Yesterday's 52 to 47 vote signaled that a slim Senate majority supports bringing home most combat forces by May 1, 2008, and came amid indications in recent weeks that a growing number of Republicans are concerned about progress in Iraq. Although Democrats won four Republican defectors, they fell eight votes short of the 60 needed to overcome the GOP's procedural objections.
After the results were tallied, Reid asked GOP leaders to accept simple-majority votes. When they refused, Reid announced that the debate would be suspended, possibly until after Labor Day or until Republicans dropped their filibuster. He called the 60-vote requirement "a new math that was developed by the Republicans to protect the president."
The vote followed 24 hours of Iraq speeches on the Senate floor, stretching from 11 a.m. Tuesday until yesterday's 11 a.m. vote. Cots that had been brought in for the overnight session were wheeled back out to a congressional storage facility, after being used by just six senators.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) called the all-night debate "serious and important," while reminding Reid that the 60-vote requirement had become a standard hurdle for controversial measures in a narrowly divided Senate, including in recent years when Democrats were the minority party.
The war proposals are amendments to the annual defense authorization bill, which includes a military pay raise and Iraq equipment upgrades. Reid's decision halted progress on that legislation, promoting criticism from Republicans.
"We are abandoning the men and women in the military if we don't take this bill back up and pass it, conference with the House, and have it signed by the president of the United States, as we have for the past 45 years," said Sen. John McCain (Ariz.).
But Reid's decision pleased antiwar groups, which have pressed Democrats to bring the war to a close. "I think Senator Reid took an important step toward confronting Republican obstructionism and ending the war," said Tom Matzzie, a strategist for MoveOn.org.
Matzzie said his group's efforts are concentrated on "forcing the entire Republican Party to look over the side of the cliff" at the political consequences of continuing to stand by Bush. Antiwar groups are focused in particular on Senate Republicans up for reelection next year.
"Ultimately, we end the war by creating a toxic political environment for war supporters like the Republicans in the Senate," Matzzie said.
One of those 2008 targets, Sen. Susan Collins of Maine, said that despite the pressure she is determined to challenge the war on her own terms. The moderate Republican voted with Democrats to allow the withdrawal debate to proceed because "I felt it was important to have an up-or-down vote." But Collins said she holds "grave reservations" that "an abrupt withdrawal" could produce "dire consequences."
Collins and Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) are co-sponsors of a proposal to narrow the military's role in Iraq to specific missions such as training Iraqi security forces and counterterrorism activities, while leading to a gradual withdrawal. She had hoped for a vote in the coming days but said Reid's decision means the measure's fate is unclear.
"I think one of the messages that the voters sent last fall that Congress has not heeded is that they're tired of partisan gridlock. They want us to work together, and they want us to get things done," Collins said.
Also sidelined was a plan from Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to use the Iraq Study Group's 79 recommendations as a blueprint for ending the war. The effort started soon after the report was issued in December, said Salazar, a low-key freshman who consulted closely with former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) and other study group members in drafting and promoting the measure.
Salazar and Alexander have rounded up eight Democratic and six Republican co-sponsors; Salazar was talking with two more Republicans about signing on when Reid pulled the plug. The co-sponsors included Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a staunch war supporter who has grown impatient with Bush's determination to wait until September for an assessment from Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker on military and political progress in Iraq, before deciding on the mission's next phase.
The proposal does not include the stringent withdrawal terms that Democratic leaders sought.
Domenici said that the bill was gaining momentum and would probably have gathered 25 co-sponsors by next week, assuming that other Iraq-related amendments had failed. "It might have had a chance if given enough time," he said, blaming Reid for refusing to negotiate.
Alexander went further in his criticism, warning that the theatrics of the all-night debate had discouraged GOP senators who oppose the current Iraq strategy from joining Democrats on alternatives. The result, he said, is a solid majority of the Senate opposed to Bush's handling of the war but unable to reach a compromise.
"Harry Reid needs to play less politics, and the president needs to be more flexible," Alexander said.
Other Republicans were more sympathetic to Reid.
"He recognizes that Iraq is the major issue that brought Democrats into a majority in both houses," said Sen. Richard G. Lugar (Ind.), one of the GOP's most prominent foreign policy voices, who co-sponsored a proposal with Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) to compel Bush to draw up contingency plans for the Iraq mission. "That constituency is unsatisfied and restive, and therefore politically this becomes the top priority by quite a distance."
Staff writer Elizabeth Williamson contributed to this report.