The Senate fails to surge against Bush

An escalation of outrage and self-interest amounts to no action at all.

Published February 6, 2007 1:30AM (EST)

The Senate voted Monday night to abandon a planned debate on the escalation of the Iraq war. About 10 minutes later, Republican leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky appeared before reporters in fat pinstripes with a grin on his face. "I'm trying to figure out how you explain this to your readers," he said.

His sympathy was well placed. The U.S. Senate follows a careful logic of its own, a Byzantine maze of terminology, doublespeak and hidden agendas. At the start of the day, both Republican and Democratic leaders had announced that they were ready to debate and vote on three different resolutions that dealt with the Iraq war. This was supposed to be the week that Congress finally weighed in on President Bush's calls for a surge of 21,000 troops into Iraq. This was supposed to be the moment that the Senate finally flexed its muscle. This was supposed to be a moment for democracy.

But nothing was what it seemed to be on Monday. And there was little that was easy to explain, starting and ending with the actions of Sen. McConnell. "There is not a single Republican senator seeking to avoid this debate," McConnell had announced on the Senate floor. Then McConnell, 44 other Republican senators and Joseph Lieberman, I-Conn., voted to stop the debate by refusing to sign on to a plan for voting on the three resolutions.

Democrats reacted with predictable outrage. "What you just saw on the Senate floor was Republicans giving George Bush a green light to escalate the war in Iraq," said Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada. But he was just spinning his defeat. Several vocal opponents of the president's Iraq policy, including Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., and Sen. John Warner, R-Va., had voted with McConnell. Something else was going on, something that had far more to do with politics than substance.

That something was a bit of mutual face saving. The interests of both Republicans and Democrats had aligned to force a stalemate. Until the final vote, Republicans and Democrats had agreed on almost everything they were going to do. Both Reid and McConnell said they would consider three nonbinding resolutions. One authored by Warner opposed the surge of troops into Iraq, but vowed not to cut off funding for soldiers in the field. A second authored by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., supported the surge of troops into Iraq and established nonbinding benchmarks to measure success. The final measure, by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., simply restated Warner's desire not to cut off funding for soldiers in the field.

Democrats and Republicans agreed that both the Warner and the McCain resolutions would need 60 votes, or a supermajority, to pass. (By Senate tradition, 60 votes are required to force a vote if one member of the body objects to ending debate on a bill.) The sticking point came down to the Gregg resolution, which ironically has the greatest chance of receiving more than 60 votes, since there is a strong bipartisan consensus against cutting off funding for troops. Republicans wanted to require 60 votes for the Gregg bill. Reid refused, even though he had previously offered a plan to require just 50 votes to pass Gregg.

This is where it gets complicated. Both Democratic and Republican aides explained in private that the likely reason Reid refused was that he didn't want to be embarrassed. The Gregg proposal would probably enjoy far more bipartisan support than either the Warner or the McCain proposals. That meant it was possible that the only bill to pass out of the Senate by clearing 60 votes would be a resolution effectively supporting President Bush. So rather than take the deal offered by McConnell, Reid simply decided to force a vote that he knew he would lose on a plan to debate only the McCain and Warner resolutions. Then he walked to the microphone and blamed Republicans for stopping debate and supporting the war.

Now the Senate is frozen in a game of political bluff. Both sides are refusing to blink, and the clock is ticking. Reid warned that he might have to move on to unrelated funding legislation as soon as Wednesday. If that happens, then there is unlikely to be a substantive debate over Iraq this week in the Senate. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq continues.

By Michael Scherer

Michael Scherer is Salon's Washington correspondent. Read his other articles here.

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