By Paul Kane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 28, 2008
The Senate yesterday continued a heated but largely theatrical debate on a bill to start withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq within 120 days and began considering another that would require the Bush administration to develop a new strategy against terrorism.
Republicans relished the opportunity to joust over war policy, confident in their political standing because of security gains in Iraq since President Bush's troop buildup took hold there last year. But Democrats said the debate offers them a new chance to highlight Republican support for a still unpopular war, setting the stage for them to run a general-election campaign this fall largely against Bush's policies in Iraq.
Under the complicated rules set up for the congressional debate, however, it is all but certain that neither bill introduced by Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) would be approved. It is possible that neither would even approach a final vote, despite knotting up the chamber in as many as three days of floor debate.
Rather than distancing themselves from Bush's Iraq policy, Republicans embraced the improvements on the ground since the president sent an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Iraq last year, and they criticized Democrats for wanting to change course.
"The surge has worked. This is coming from someone who was a cynic," Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) said during the floor debate. Brownback had criticized Bush's policies in Iraq last year.
"The Democrats are sort of in denial. It's almost as if they're sorry things have gotten better," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said in a brief interview.
Democrats used the debate to test their emerging line of political attack on Bush's war policy, contending that the mounting cost of the conflict in Iraq is stealing resources from domestic priorities that could help prop up the sagging economy.
Sen. Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) called the Iraq war the "$800 billion gorilla in the room" that is diverting funds that could be used to address the subprime mortgage crisis in the housing market.
"The spending issue is becoming a new dynamic here," Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, said in an interview. "They are misreading public opinion dramatically. The closer we get to November, the more apparent that will be," he added, referring to Republicans.
Schumer, who also chairs Congress's Joint Economic Committee, is holding a hearing today that he said will demonstrate how funding for Iraq displaces federal spending on economic recovery programs.
"The world should understand America has done its share," Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (D-Nev.) said, closing the debate before a second procedural vote on the Feingold measures. "When is enough going to be enough?"
The debate in the past two days centered on Feingold's bill to begin troop withdrawals within 120 days of its passage and, at that point, to prohibit expenditures not meant for running counterterrorism operations, protecting the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad or training Iraqi forces. The second bill would require the administration to draw up a new strategy on the battle against al-Qaeda and to present it to Congress within 60 days.
Arranging a pair of votes on preliminary motions that they expected Republicans to block, Democrats did not expect to have a lengthy debate on either measure. Reid had already scheduled a Tuesday-afternoon debate on a package of bills dealing with the housing crisis.
But, in a surprise move on Tuesday, most Republicans supported opening the debate on the first Iraq measure, even though not a single one had backed five previous bids to take up Feingold's withdrawal bills. Yesterday, 42 Republicans voted with 45 Democrats and two independents to begin a debate on Feingold's second measure.
The complicated parliamentary procedure used to bring the Feingold bills to the floor makes it likely that the bills would simply be withdrawn sometime today. Rather than hold a final vote on either measure, the Senate could just shift its attention to the housing legislation.