An Unlikely Vote Forces No Change

(By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, September 30, 2007

On Wednesday morning, Sen. Johnny Isakson (R-Ga.) walked onto the Senate floor and committed an act that for him is highly unusual: He voted with the Democrats on Iraq.

The measure, offered by Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., was a nonbinding statement of support for a new Iraqi political model consisting of a central government in Baghdad and three semiautonomous regions for the Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds. Isakson was one of 26 Republicans who supported the Biden plan, making the 75 to 23 result the biggest bipartisan showing since the Iraq debate began in January.

"It really acknowledged that the continuing violence in part is a product of the lack of reconciliation, which is the reality of making that government work," Isakson said of the Biden proposal. "I didn't see anything in that that was inconsistent with what we ought to all want, and that is a reconciled Iraq with a functioning government. If you have reconciliation, the odds are you won't have the violence or you won't have as much of it."

Nor did it faze him that Biden is a Democrat -- and a 2008 presidential candidate. "I think it's very important that you consider every amendment not based on the source but based on the amendment," Isakson said. Biden, he said, has been "critical of the war but pragmatic in how he addresses the future."

The bottom line is, as Isakson noted, the amendment does not force President Bush to alter his military strategy one iota. And the Democrats' inability to force a change in Iraq policy suits Isakson just fine -- just as it does Republican war supporters who were reassured this month by reports from the military that, given time, Iraq could be stabilized.

But Isakson is starting to resent how much legislative oxygen the debate has consumed, particularly in recent weeks, as the Senate tries to work its way through a vital defense policy bill.

After the Biden vote, on Wednesday night, Isakson had dinner with two soldiers at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. One had lost a leg; the other had recently undergone surgery to reconstruct most of the left side of his body. Both men had been riding in armored personnel carriers that had come under attack. That languishing defense bill, Isakson noted, includes money for new, safer mine-resistant vehicles.

"Every 60 days, we debate withdrawal and date certain and defunding the war," Isakson said with exasperation. "We did it in May on the supplemental. We did it in July right before we left. Here we are, we've been debating the same types of things. Meanwhile, I sit down and have dinner with two guys, both injured by [improvised explosive devices] . . . and we're talking about ancillary issues."

"I'm a big sports fan," Isakson added, "and it's almost like a four-corners offense, where you just kind of try to run out the clock. I don't know this, obviously, but it just looks like, to me, that they're trying to run out the clock."

While Isakson was dining with the soldiers, Democratic presidential candidates debated the Iraq war at a New Hampshire forum. None of the top three contenders -- Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Barack Obama (Ill.) and former senator John Edwards (N.C.) -- would commit to a total U.S. withdrawal within five years.

But all three, Isakson noted, have been advocating a cutoff of U.S. funds for the war.

"They've got themselves in a great big corner," Isakson said with a chuckle.

One significant war-related development, he noted, was last week's assertion by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad before the United Nations that "the nuclear issue of Iran is now closed."

"Iran is just really memorializing themselves as bully No. 1 and a major problem," Isakson said. Ahmadinejad's defiant stance also underscores the region's volatility, he said, bolstering the Republican view that the United States must remain a strong presence in Iraq for the foreseeable future.

"If you were running for president next year as a Democrat, and you had gotten married to withdrawal and we're coming home or the war is lost, and all of a sudden this success we've had with the surge continues, and the clerics keep coming over and switching sides, and we are securing and holding in Iraq and the rest of the world is afraid of what Iran is going to do -- I think you're going to look pretty silly a year ago having been for 'let's go home, it's over, we lost.'

"That's what I see," Isakson added. "I think they're trying to make sure they don't get out on that diving board, although I think they're already there -- with the possible exception of Biden. I remain convinced: Nobody likes for the country to be at war, but Americans don't like to lose. I think they realize there's a lot at stake in the Persian Gulf and the Middle East."

© 2007 The Washington Post Company