Reid Unmoved by Calls For Iraq Compromise
Friday, July 20, 2007
Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid offered no apologies yesterday for his decision to reject compromise efforts to alter President Bush's Iraq strategy that had the support of a growing number of Republicans.
"We did the very best we could," the senator from Nevada said in response to criticism that he had cut off debate on Wednesday just as a bipartisan consensus on milder Iraq proposals was emerging. "I strongly believe we should have a bipartisan foreign policy." But he added: "We need to do something to change the course of the war."
Although Reid's strategy won him praise from antiwar advocates who are demanding that Congress do nothing less than force an end to the conflict, it has painted him as being as much of a hard-liner for ending the war as the president is in arguing that it is too soon to bring the troops home.
The Democratic leader's unyielding stance has frustrated many lawmakers, who had hoped the Iraq debate would avoid the partisan pitfalls that have stymied so much legislation in recent years in the narrowly divided Senate. He angered many Republicans when he called a rare, all-night debate on the war Tuesday that lasted 24 hours, until Wednesday morning when the GOP refused to give up its filibuster of a Democratic troop-withdrawal measure.
But Reid's leadership team has placed a bet that -- after a month-long recess at home with voters in August, followed by a Sept. 15 assessment of the war's progress from Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq -- Senate Republicans will feel the pressure to give up and endorse stringent Democratic withdrawal timelines.
As many as 70 senators have publicly expressed concerns about Bush's handling of the Iraq war. But few Republican war critics are ready to take the drastic steps that Reid and other antiwar Democrats are advocating, in particular requiring the military to meet firm withdrawal dates.
Reid's insistence on the deadlines means that compromise measures with bipartisan support cannot be put to a vote.
Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.) and Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) have proposed adopting the Iraqi Study Group's recommendations that, among other things, call for redeploying U.S. troops to training Iraqis and to counterterrorism. The proposal has attracted Republican and Democratic co-sponsors. "It might have had a chance if given enough time," said Sen. Pete V. Domenici (R-N.M.), a onetime war supporter who broke with Bush this month by signing onto the legislation.
The Salazar-Alexander plan is an example of the sort of bridge measure that could lure Republicans to break from Bush -- a process some Democrats have noted is probably going to be a gradual process. "They need something to jump onto first," said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate.
Yet, at the same time, Democratic war opponents are agitating for party leaders to push aggressively to bring troops home. Sen. Richard J. Durbin (Ill.) explained the leadership's rationale this week. "Was it worth it? I think it was. Now the Senate's on record. Many senators who've gone home and said they're opposed to the war voted to continue the war. They'll have to answer to the voters."
The Senate all-nighter shored up support among liberal antiwar activists, who were furious when congressional Democratic leaders gave Bush an additional $100 billion in war funding in May, with no deadline strings attached. John D. Podesta, president of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, said the Senate this week provided "clarity" to a public largely opposed to the war.
"Staying here all night changed, to some extent, the perception of the reality in Washington," Podesta said.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (N.Y.), who chairs the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, dismissed war critics such as Domenici for saying "one thing at home and one thing here." Moving to other Iraq proposals, Schumer said, while Republicans were blocking the Democrats' first choice, would have provided Republicans with a safe haven from taking the tough stance that is required to end the war.
"It would delay them coming on board, because they would say [to their voters], 'See, I'm trying to do something,' " Schumer said.
Many veteran senators lament the bitter polarization that the war has engendered between the parties. "I've seen many majority leaders in the past, on both sides of the aisle, sit down with their counterparts and say, 'Hey, here's what we've got to do for the good of the country,' " said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). "We've worked out Bosnia; we worked out Kosovo; we worked out the first Gulf war. In the years that I've been here, we were able to sit down, Republican and Democrat, and work for the good of the country. Obviously, that system has broken down. It's just a fact."
Sen. Trent Lott (Miss.), the No. 2 GOP leader, said the week's negative effects could linger. "There's never any effort around here to try and come together," Lott said. "Comity and courtesy affect substance."
Democrats have been mostly supportive of Reid, even those who have worked with Republicans on alternative war measures. "Senator Reid does what a leader does," said Sen. Ben Nelson (Neb.), a moderate Democrat who co-sponsored proposed changes to the Iraq mission with Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine). "That's the role of the leader -- to set a standard, and I think he did."