Sixty votes against the "surge"?

To overcome GOP filibuster threats, escalation opponents will have to agree on a compromise resolution.

By Tim Grieve
Published January 25, 2007 5:33PM (EST)

Back when he was in the Senate majority, Kentucky's Mitch McConnell thought it was pretty outrageous that Democrats were using the threat of filibusters to set up a 60-vote requirement for the confirmation of a handful of George W. Bush's judicial nominees. McConnell called the Democrats' tactics an "ugly denial" of "fundamental fairness" that was "unprecedented in the history of the country" and would cause "great damage" to the U.S. Senate.

Now that the Republicans are in the minority, it turns out that using filibusters to force 60-vote cloture votes is nothing other than standard operating procedure. The Senate is set to debate competing anti-escalation resolutions next week, and McConnell tells MSNBC that all of them "are likely, as virtually everything in the Senate is likely, to be subject to a 60-vote threshold."

Barring some sort of dramatic and catastrophic development, the anti-escalation resolution approved yesterday by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee will fall short of that 60-vote mark. Indeed, with Tim Johnson in the hospital, Joe Lieberman unlikely to support anything that criticizes Bush's plan and a handful of Democrats on record in support of a somewhat milder anti-"augmentation" resolution proposed by John Warner, Susan Collins and Ben Nelson, it seems that the Foreign Relations Committee's resolution wouldn't even get a 50-vote majority if it came up for a vote on the Senate floor.

The key for escalation opponents who want to see some sort of resolution passed: Find a way to harmonize the resolution approved by the Foreign Relations Committee with the one that Warner, Collins and Nelson have introduced and more than half a dozen other senators are now cosponsoring.

While the Foreign Relations Committee resolution declares that it is "not in the national interest of the United States to deepen its military involvement in Iraq, particularly by escalating the United States military force presence in Iraq," the Warner-Collins-Nelson resolution speaks slightly more softly. It says that its supporters "respect" the president's constitutional powers as commander in chief and do not intend to "question or contravene" them; it praises the work of the U.S. military and warns of the dangers of a "failed state" in Iraq; and it says that the resolution should "not be interpreted" as "precipitating any immediate reduction in, or withdrawal of, the present level of forces." The resolution then makes 10 specific "sense of the Congress" statements. Among them: "The Senate disagrees with the 'plan' to augment our forces by 21,500, and urges the president instead to consider all options and alternatives" for using "reduced force levels" to achieve the "strategic goals" of strengthening the Iraqi government, protecting Iraq's boundaries and preventing the country from becoming a safe haven for terrorists.

Although the two resolutions are different in tone, they're sufficiently close in substance that some sort of compromise measure ought to be possible -- especially given that what we're discussing here is a nonbinding resolution that the White House has already said it will ignore. For backers of either resolution, close enough ought to be close enough -- especially if the end result is a bipartisan repudiation of the escalation that can make it to the Senate floor.

Asked today whether there was anything in any of the resolutions that the Bush administration could "latch on to and perhaps move on yourselves," Tony Snow said he would "resist talking about 'latching on to,' because it gives a sense of a sense of desperation, where, in fact, the president approaches this as a commander-in-chief. And as a commander-in-chief, it is his obligation to figure out how to succeed in Iraq. This is not a political exercise, this is an exercise in leadership."

What the senators are doing? That's just politics. Asked about the Foreign Relations Committee resolution -- the one cosponsored by Republican Sen. Chuck Hagel -- Snow said, "The president understands that people have political concerns."


Tim Grieve

Tim Grieve is a senior writer and the author of Salon's War Room blog.

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