Politics, Uncertainty Follow Latest Votes on Iraq

Posted February 19, 2007 at 1:44pm

The Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and outside anti-war organizations are gearing up for a weeklong effort to pressure Republican Senators who voted to sustain a filibuster of a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush’s plan to boost troop levels in Iraq. As the Senate headed out the door Saturday for the weeklong Presidents Day recess, Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) also asked Democratic Senators to conduct events and interviews on Iraq throughout the week.

Despite his inability to muster 60 votes to break the filibuster, Reid quickly claimed victory, noting that 56 Democrats and Republicans had supported the resolution. “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,” Reid said following the vote. Reid also said he would not look to bring the nonbinding resolution to a vote again.

While the filibuster represented at least a short-term victory for Bush and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), the defeat of the nonbinding resolution could open the door to more dramatic efforts — either to force an end to the Iraq War or to write a more narrowly focused authorization for operations in that country.

Presidential hopeful Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) said Sunday that he was discussing with colleagues the possibility of reworking the war authorization.

“I’ve been working with some of my colleagues to try to convince them that that’s the way to go — to repeal and restate the president’s authority, make it clear that the purpose that he has troops in there is to, in fact, protect against al-Qaida gaining chunks of territory, training the Iraqi forces, force protection, and for our forces,” Biden said on CBS’ “Face the Nation.” Similarly, Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.) indicated during an interview on Fox News that he may look to rewrite the war authorization.

Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) and Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) both have introduced measures that would require Bush to end operations in Iraq on a specific timetable.

Reid held a series of meetings late last week to discuss the next steps, but a spokesman for Reid said no final decisions have been made on how to proceed on Iraq.

But Democrats and their allies wasted no time in launching attacks on Republicans who backed the filibuster Saturday. Within minutes of the vote, the DSCC sent out a blistering release attacking Sen. John Sununu (R-N.H.), who is up for re-election in 2008, while anti-war groups including MoveOn.org were preparing Internet-based and state-specific campaigns targeting other Republicans who opposed the resolution.

Reid has asked his Caucus to use the week to continue to put pressure on Republicans and the White House. According to a packet of information distributed to Democratic Senators last week, Reid has asked them to conduct television and radio interviews throughout the week to discuss the vote and the war. The packet also asks each Senator to hold at least one Iraq-related event in their state with veterans’ groups or others to highlight Democratic opposition to Bush’s troop “surge” plan.

In the House, lawmakers ended a weeklong debate — clocking in at 44 hours, 55 minutes and tallying 392 Members, according to the Democratic leadership — voting Friday to pass a measure, 246-182, condemning the proposed troop increase.

“In a loud voice the Congress of the United States said to the president, ‘We need a new direction in Iraq,’” House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said as Democratic leaders touted their victory at a press briefing following the vote.

Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) also praised the vote as a “very clear and firm message” to Bush. Democrats repeatedly have touted the nonbinding resolution as a “first step” as the House considers legislation intended to bring the Iraq War to an end.

While Democrats expressed satisfaction in gaining bipartisan support for the bill, which 17 Republican lawmakers crossed the aisle to support, Reps. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) and Jim Marshall (D-Ga.) bucked their leadership to vote against the measure, and House Republican leaders were encouraged by the vote’s outcome.

“Republicans may have lost the vote on this nonbinding resolution, but we won the debate,” Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) said in a statement. “The American people will not support a ‘slow-bleed’ policy that cuts off funding and reinforcements for our troops in harm’s way.”

While some Republicans had anticipated larger defections, multiple lawmakers said Rep. John Murtha’s (D-Pa.) announcement in the midst of the four-day debate that he intends to use Congress’s purse strings to make it more difficult for Bush to execute his war strategy had a significant impact on the vote tally.

“Without a doubt,” said Chief Deputy Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-Va.), adding that an extended debate helped to bolster GOP support against the resolution.

“I think it had a huge impact,” added Rep. Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas), who said Murtha “admitted to the radical Democratic base what we expected all along that there is a plan to choke off funding to the troops.”

But Democratic leaders publicly refuted the assertion Friday, including Pelosi, who stated: “My estimate was 12, so we exceeded expectations.”

Democratic Caucus Chairman Rahm Emanuel (Ill.) added that by breaking ranks, the GOP lawmakers demonstrated that the bill is “a bipartisan rejection of the policy.”

Voting in favor of the resolution were Republican Reps. Mike Castle (Del.), Howard Coble (N.C.), Tom Davis (Va.), John Duncan (Tenn.), Phil English (Pa.), Wayne Gilchrest (Md.), Bob Inglis (S.C.), Timothy Johnson (Ill.), Walter Jones Jr. (N.C.), Ric Keller (Fla.), Mark Kirk (Ill.), Steven LaTourette (Ohio), Ron Paul (Texas), Tom Petri (Wis.), Jim Ramstad (Minn.), Fred Upton (Mich.) and Jim Walsh (N.Y.).

The vote sets the stage for what is expected to be a broader debate in March on the president’s war supplemental funding request, although Democratic leaders declined Friday to discuss legislative proposals tied to that spending bill.

“Let us savor that victory and see what the impact of that is on the president and on his policy,” said Pelosi, visibly irritated. The Speaker also refused to indicate whether she supports the specific proposals Murtha outlined last week — including restrictions on the deployment of new troops, prohibiting the executive branch from extending tours of duty and requiring troops to receive a one-year reprieve between tours of duty, as well as shuttering the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, military prison — stating that she will wait to see a written version.

“We have a lot of give and take going on in our Congress on this,” Pelosi added. She later noted that Murtha’s approach also must be vetted in the Appropriations Committee. “Then we will deal with what those issues are,” she said.

In addition, Hoyer asserted the supplemental — one of several avenues the Democrats have indicated they will use to address the war — will contain “benchmarks” to gauge progress, although he did not provide specifics.

Although appropriations bills typically are brought to the House floor under “open” rules — allowing Members to propose amendments to the legislation — Democratic leaders have yet to indicate their intentions for the supplemental bill. The full Appropriations Committee is expected to take up the measure in early March.

Republicans are expected to continue to focus their criticism on the Murtha proposal, offering a series of amendments to the supplemental, although the exact nature remains to be seen.

“Republicans will be watching very closely to see if [Democrats] advance a policy that micromanages the duties of the Pentagon,” said a senior Republican aide.

Murtha, who did not speak on the House floor during last week’s debate, could not be reached for comment Friday. But one senior Democratic aide, who asked not to be named, said the House majority will continue to make its support of the military a point as it moves through the supplemental spending bill.

“We will push back very hard, more than push back, but put forward our message,” the aide said. “It’s our responsibility to work with the president to make that change.”

In addition to the supplemental, as well as the fiscal 2008 spending bills, Democrats also are expected to begin work on other legislation targeting the Iraq War, including a measure authored by the fiscally conservative Blue Dog Coalition that seeks fiscal accountability in the war and reconstruction efforts.

“The United States should take the lead in accountability in reconstruction,” Pelosi said on the House floor Friday. Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), who authored the bill along with Rep. Jane Harman (D-Calif.), said he does not yet know when the measure will reach the floor.

While Democrats maintained unity on their initial effort, the new majority is expected to face more difficult terrain as the House moves forward, as factions within the Caucus move in different directions.

“Many Members have very different ideas … about how we can go forward successfully,” Hoyer said Friday. “Our primary objective is how to defeat terrorism.”

Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Calif.), co-founder of the Out of Iraq Caucus, praised Murtha, saying, “He’s a great leader. He wants to make sure our troops are protected.” But she said even if his proposal were included in the supplemental, it remains unlikely she will support such a bill, a measure that she has repeatedly opposed in the past.

While Republicans also largely held together on this vote, there continues to be angst among the rank and file moving forward. “It was an agonizing week,” said Rep. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.), who said earlier on the House floor that he was a reluctant opponent to the resolution.

“In a few weeks, this body will have the opportunity to vote on funding for ongoing operations in Iraq,” Ehlers said. “Forget today’s resolution. The vote on the supplemental funding bills is where the real debate will occur and the policies will be laid forth.”

Susan Davis contributed to this report.