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Senate Rejects Renewed Effort to Debate Iraq

NY Times | February 18, 2007  
CARL HULSE and JEFF ZELENY

The Senate on Saturday narrowly rejected an effort to force debate on a resolution opposing President Bush's troop buildup in Iraq, but Republican defections emboldened Democrats to promise new attempts to influence the administration's war policy.

The 56-to-34 vote in a rare Saturday session was the second time Republicans were able to deny opponents of the troop increase a debate on a resolution challenging Mr. Bush, and it came just a day after the House formally opposed his plan to increase the military presence in Iraq.

But the outcome, four votes short of the 60 needed to break a procedural stalemate, suggested that Democrats were slowly drawing support from Senate Republicans for what was shaping up to be a drawn-out fight between the Democrat-controlled Congress and Mr. Bush over his execution of the war.

Seven Republicans split from their party and joined 48 Democrats and one Independent in calling for a debate — five more Republicans than during a similar showdown earlier this month. All but two of the seven face re-election next year.

The Republicans who broke ranks were Senators John W. Warner of Virginia, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Norm Coleman of Minnesota, and Olympia J. Snowe and Susan Collins, both of Maine.

Senator Harry Reid, Democrat of Nevada, the majority leader, said the result showed that Senate sentiment was running against the president.

“A majority of the United States Senate just voted on Iraq, and a majority of the United States Senate is against the escalation in Iraq,” Mr. Reid said as he withdrew the resolution. He and other party leaders said they intended to introduce quickly more substantive proposals on Iraq when the Senate returns from a weeklong break and begins considering legislation to enact recommendations from the bipartisan Sept. 11 commission.

“We will be relentless,” said Senator Charles E. Schumer of New York, the third-ranking Democrat. “There will be resolution after resolution, amendment after amendment, all forcing this body to do what it has not done in the previous three years: debate and discuss Iraq.”

Democrats would not divulge the details of their next step, but one official said it would focus on the mission of American troops in Iraq and try to skirt the more politically difficult question of federal money for the military.

Republicans derided Saturday's vote as political theater and said stark divisions among Democrats on the question of military spending would complicate the party's efforts to advance legislation designed to stop the war.

“We want a debate about Iraq that includes funding for the troops,” said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader. “They've denounced the surge. The question is, are they going to fund the troops?”

Tony Snow, the White House spokesman, said on Saturday that Mr. Bush urged Congress to approve his pending request for $93 billion through Sept. 30 for military operations and played down the importance of the House and Senate votes.

“This week's voting gave the world a glimpse of democracy's vigor,” Mr. Snow said in a statement. “The next votes should provide unmistakable assurance of this nation's resolve in achieving success.”

But Democrats said the votes in Congress — the first major clashes over the war — reflected widespread public unease with the idea of deepening involvement in Iraq.

“It may be called a surge, but I believe it is a plunge,” said Senator Carl Levin, Democrat of Michigan and chairman of the Armed Services Committee. “A plunge into the sectarian cauldron, a plunge into the unknown.”

Republicans continued to try to make the case that Democrats were shutting down a full-fledged Senate review of Mr. Bush's Iraq strategy by refusing the Republicans a chance to offer an alternative that would place the Senate on record against cutting off money for armed forces in the field.

“The majority cannot tell the minority what we are going to have one vote on, take it or leave it,” said Senator Jim Bunning, Republican of Kentucky, defending his party's stance as senators squared off at noon. Democrats were leery of the Republican plan, written by Senator Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, because of its potential to attract the most Senate votes and to overshadow Senate action criticizing the troop increase. Some lawmakers also believed that Congress might be asked to restrict military spending, and they did not want their hands tied by an earlier vote on a more symbolic resolution.

A vote to open debate would have allowed the Senate to begin considering the identical language that was approved on Friday by the House. The resolution states, in part, that “Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on Jan. 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq.”

Without 60 votes for the procedural motion, the Senate was unable to start debate. It was an outcome that left Democrats accusing Republicans of ducking a vote directly opposing Mr. Bush's policy, even though many of the Republicans had significant reservations about the conduct of the war and concerns for the political repercussions.

“The American people can see what is happening here,” said Senator Ben Nelson, Democrat of Nebraska. “They know that some want to prevent a vote at all costs.”

Mr. Nelson and Mr. Warner co-wrote an earlier, more detailed bipartisan resolution disagreeing with the troop buildup. But that proposal stalled on Feb. 5, when the Republican leadership held its ranks together against the Democratic plan to allow a vote on that plan but not on the Gregg alternative. Mr. Warner sided with Republicans in that initial vote but broke from his party on Saturday.

“We have the right to respectfully disagree,” Mr. Warner said. “Mr. President, do you need 21,500 additional men and women in this conflict to go into the streets and alleys of Baghdad?”

Some Republicans accused Democrats of political posturing in advance of the 2008 presidential and Congressional elections and of undermining military forces and the administration. They said opponents of Mr. Bush were trying to have it both ways, by criticizing his policy but not taking the more politically risky step of curtailing spending on the war.

“If you think we are in the middle of civil war, cut off funding,” Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said to his colleagues.

The Saturday session drew a throng of spectators who lined up outside the Capitol hoping to get a glimpse of the debate. The Senate has met on Saturday only 14 times in the past decade and conducted votes on only five of those occasions, records show.

Nine Republican senators were not present for the vote, including Senator John McCain of Arizona, a presidential candidate, who was campaigning in Iowa. Two other Republicans, Jon Kyl of Arizona and Bob Corker of Tennessee, had left for Baghdad.

But with the burden of reaching 60 votes on their side, Democrats, particularly the party's presidential candidates, did not miss the showdown. Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton of New York campaigned in New Hampshire in the morning and came back for the vote; Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, who had been in South Carolina, also came back. Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware flew from Iowa to Washington before a scheduled return to Iowa on Saturday night.

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