Iraq Debate Stirs Tensions, GOP Floor Action

Posted February 26, 2008 at 6:50pm

Democratic frustrations with Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) decision to renew the Iraq War debate bubbled to the surface Tuesday during the Conference’s weekly luncheon, including complaints over a lack of broad consultation and questions over the utility of the debate, Senate Democrats said.

During the closed-door luncheon, a number of Democratic Senators raised questions about Reid’s decision to honor an agreement with Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) to hold two votes on Iraq-related measures — particularly since violence in Iraq is down and the public’s attention has turned to domestic issues, according to Democratic sources who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

A senior Democratic leadership aide chalked up the frustrations with Reid to the price of being leader and having to honor agreements with Members even if they are unpopular.

“That’s the cost of being leader. … But I guarantee you that in the past Harry Reid has had the back of a lot of the people now complaining,” the aide said.

The meeting came just prior to a vote on a motion to proceed to a Feingold bill — co-sponsored by Reid — requiring a pullout of troops from Iraq. Although Reid had expected Republicans to vote against cloture — a key factor in his decision to honor the agreement, sources said — Republicans ultimately voted for cloture in order to force Democrats into a debate.

Forty-three Republicans joined with slightly more than half of Democrats in approving the procedural motion to start the debate by a 70-24 vote. But 20 Democrats — including Sens. Max Baucus (Mont.), Evan Bayh (Ind.), Jeff Bingaman (N.M.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Tim Johnson (S.D.), Mary Landrieu (La.), Carl Levin (Mich.), Ben Nelson (Neb.), Bill Nelson (Fla.), Jim Webb (Va.) and Mark Pryor (Ark.) — voted against cloture.

At the Democratic luncheon, some lawmakers complained that Reid had not consulted with the entire Conference before setting them on a course for a public debate on Iraq, and they argued that politically it was unwise to turn their attention away from the economy. According to aides and lawmakers, a number of Senators were clearly frustrated with the decision.

“There’s always going to be frustrations whenever you go back” to the issue of Iraq, Ben Nelson said Tuesday following the luncheon. “None of us want to go back if we’re not going to get some kind of change,” Nelson explained.

Reid defended his decision to resume the Iraq debate, arguing that it is important not just from a national security standpoint but also from an economic position. “We are not going to leave this subject. It’s too important,” Reid said, adding that “you can’t separate the economy from the long, bloody civil war in Iraq. You just can’t.”

In fact, several other lawmakers during the day echoed Reid’s economics argument, and Senate Democratic leadership aides said it was presented to the Conference during the lunch as one of the strongest messaging strategies for explaining the return to the Iraq debate.

When asked whether he saw any utility in reigniting the war debate at this point, Nelson said that while an argument could be made for keeping the issue of the war in the public debate, politically he was unsure what use it serves. “You could make the argument that Members are so concerned about the cost to human life and the treasure … [that] getting the message out to the American people is always important. But politically, I don’t know,” Nelson said.

But Senate Majority Whip Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.) defended the need for the debate, arguing that waiting for the fight over the war supplemental later this year — which had originally been Reid’s intention — would mean the chamber would miss an opportunity to debate a change in policy rather than a simple up-or-down vote on spending. “This is as close as we can get to a policy change vote. When it comes to the supplemental it’s more of an up-or-down vote” on approving money, Durbin said.

“I don’t think debating and voting frequently on the war is a bad thing,” Durbin added.

Senate Republicans were quick to go on the offensive, defending the Bush administration’s “surge” strategy and accusing Democrats of attempting to pull out of Iraq regardless of the consequences.

“After months of positive reports on improved safety and even important political progress, some of our friends on the other side once again want to cut funding for the troops. In the words of the first Feingold bill that we’ll be voting on, they want to, quote, ‘promptly transition the mission.’ They want to tear up the Petraeus Plan and cut off funds for the very troops who are carrying it out,” Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said Tuesday.

In an e-mail circulated to members of the GOP Conference on Tuesday afternoon, Conference Vice Chairman John Cornyn (Texas) asked Republicans to sign up for floor time during the 30-hour debate on Iraq policy and provided offices with talking points and other materials on the surge.

“I am asking for your help on the Senate floor today, tomorrow and for as long as we are focusing on these critical issues. At a time when we are optimistic — albeit cautious — about our efforts to defeat radical terrorism abroad and at home, we should take advantage of the Senate floor to convey this important message,” Cornyn said in the e-mail.