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Senate Debates Resolution on Troop Increase in Iraq

February 5, 2007 at 2:20 PM EDT

RAY SUAREZ: When Carl Levin and John Warner, the current and former chairmen of the Senate Armed Services Committee, came together last week with a compromise resolution opposed to the president’s troop buildup in Iraq, it appeared that a vote forcing all senators to go on the record with their positions could happen quickly.

SEN. HARRY REID (D-NV), Senate Majority Leader: It’s now 21,5000. It’s 48,000.

RAY SUAREZ: But by the time the Senate began work this afternoon, debate on Iraq policy had become trapped in a partisan dispute over procedure.

SEN. HARRY REID: We learned on Friday, and it was continued over the weekend, that the minority is going to do everything in their power to block an Iraq vote. Are they so worried that a bipartisan majority of senators might voice their opposition to this escalation?

RAY SUAREZ: Democrat Harry Reid, the majority leader, originally suggested limiting Senate debate with straight up-or-down votes on two resolutions, Levin-Warner, and one in support of the president’s plan, sponsored by Arizona Republican John McCain.

SEN. HARRY REID: The American public would see a debate on Warner, see a debate on McCain. One is for the surge; one is against the surge.

RAY SUAREZ: On the other hand, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, who wanted to debate several resolutions, also wanted to require a supermajority of 60 votes for any of them to pass.

SEN. MITCH MCCONNELL (R-KY), Senate Minority Leader: I think it’s really not in dispute that a 60-vote threshold is quite common around here, is ordinary rather than extraordinary.

Deciding among resolutions

RAY SUAREZ: Those were the starting points of the two leaders, as they negotiated on and off the Senate floor this afternoon. In reality, it would take a consent of 60 senators just to move ahead on any of these resolutions, which meant Democrat Reid needed to enlist the support of at least nine Republicans to get his way, Republicans like Susan Collins of Maine.

She, too, supports the Levin-Warner resolution, but she also wants to protect the rights of her Republican colleagues to participate actively and propose still other resolutions. I talked with Susan Collins at her office this afternoon.

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS (R), Maine: What I want to see is a full debate on the Senate floor on the road ahead in Iraq. And to me, that means that members should be allowed to offer alternative resolutions, to offer amendments to the resolutions, and that we should have a full and open debate.

RAY SUAREZ: At this point in the going, are there still people reaching out to members, trying to figure out where they are, trying to move them over to the other side?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: Yes, there's still a lot of lobbying going on, both for and against the various resolutions. And people are still refining language of resolutions, as well, to try to broaden support.

RAY SUAREZ: Is it your sense that there are still a lot of members to be gotten?

SEN. SUSAN COLLINS: I think this is a very difficult vote for many members. It's a vote that, in some cases, asks Republicans to oppose the strategy put forth by the president, a member of their own party.

In the case of some Democrats, who strongly believe that funding should be cut off, they're facing members in their own caucus who think that that would be a disastrous position for the Democrats to take. So I think there's a great deal of angst and anguish on both sides of the aisle.

RAY SUAREZ: Early this evening, senators took the first test vote on whether Majority Leader Reid could indeed to muster 60 votes needed to limit debate on Iraq resolutions. Democrat Bill Nelson of Florida said the Levin-Warner resolution opposed to the troop buildup spoke for him.

SEN. BILL NELSON (D), Florida: ... any increase of troops in Iraq, the Marine generals in Anbar province had convinced this senator that an increase in Anbar province would be helpful. But the conclusion of this senator was that putting more American troops in the middle of Baghdad, in the middle of that sectarian violence, was not going to do any good.

RAY SUAREZ: But Republican John Cornyn argued in favor of opening up the debate to explore all ideas.

SEN. JOHN CORNYN (R), Texas: ... regardless of the sincerely held beliefs that I know senators feel on this very important topic, the last thing we should be forced to do would be to vote on a single resolution, when there are so many different points of view that deserve full and fair debate on what is the most important issue that confronts our country and literally of the world at this time, and that is the global war on terror, the central front of that war in Iraq, and what we are going to do about it, whether we're going to give up or whether we're going to try to secure that country in a way that will allow it to govern and defend itself.

RAY SUAREZ: This evening, Majority Leader Reid lost the procedural vote, falling short of mustering the Republican support needed to limit debate on Iraqi resolutions.

Vote fails to end resolution debate

RAY SUAREZ: For more on the Senate impasse, we turn to Tim Starks, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly magazine.

And, Tim, that vote came just before the broadcast tonight. What was the final count?

TIM STARKS, Congressional Quarterly: I don't have the final count handy. I know that there were a couple of Republicans who did end up voting to allow the debate to go forward and that there was one independent, Joe Lieberman, who voted with the Republicans to prevent the debate from going forward. So it was well short of what it needed to go forward.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, Harry Reid then is 10 or so votes short of the 60 he needs to cut off debate and move ahead with his favored resolution. What happens now?

TIM STARKS: Well, I think you're going to see a fair amount more posturing, a little bit more fighting over the fight that they're going to have. It's going to be kind of an attrition issue, where the Democrats want to make it clear to the public that the Republicans are scared of having a debate, that they're hiding the president, and defending his policy without really giving any consideration to the fact that a majority of the Senate would actually probably vote to criticize his policy.

The Republicans, a fair number of whom don't actually want to have any Iraq resolution at all, are going to see if they can wait things out to get a better deal in terms of the structure of the debate, how many resolutions are offered, and what way.

And it may be one of these things where, in the next couple days, we see this all go by the wayside. Sen. Reid has implied today that, because of some other priorities that have a strict timetable coming up, such as the funding for the government for the rest of fiscal 2007, that this may have to be set aside for a little while.

The Republican's position

RAY SUAREZ: Sen. Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, said, oh, he favors an open debate on all these options, but he wants to stick to that 60-vote threshold. In your reporting, are you counting him among those Republicans who would rather not debate this at all?

TIM STARKS: Absolutely. I think he is not in favor of having a war debate because he supports the president's position. And any kind of resolution that comes out of the Senate criticizing the president, even if it doesn't go all the way to 60 votes, would not help the president's cause. It might not be considered a victory for the Democrats, but it could potentially be viewed as a setback by some in the public to the president's policy.

I think he's realistic in knowing that there probably will be a debate. So they're trying to set things on their terms, the Republicans. And that means some resolutions that are more favorable to the president and, furthermore, some resolutions that might be designed to put the Democrats on the defensive, to try and splinter them and show that they are divided in their war policy, over things such as whether we should continue to support the troops that are going over.

RAY SUAREZ: Help me with a little bit of mechanics here. Right after the roll call -- and it's been confirmed for me, by the way, it was 49-47 at the end -- right after the roll call, Sen. Harry Reid, the majority leader jumped up, got recognition from the president, and said he wanted to open reconsideration of the motion. Why did he do that?

TIM STARKS: That's a procedural mechanism whereby, if a vote reaches a certain threshold, if a senator switches his vote right at that 50-50 area, it allows them to re-bring up this vote again, to do the same thing they did today. Otherwise there may have been some procedural technical difficulties in having another vote like this.

On-the-record voting

RAY SUAREZ: Now, many Republican senators have already come out publicly and said that they have misgivings about the way the war is being conducted. Some of them are coming up for election in the '08 senatorial cycle; some of them are not and just wanted it be counted publicly.

Why is a roll call vote perceived as being different from just talking to a reporter, having it published in the newspapers, or even mentioning it in the debate that you are upset about the way things are going?

TIM STARKS: That's interesting. I think, for some of these lawmakers who have criticized this troop increase, they're getting a lot of pressure from their Republican leaders to stick with the president. There's also the issue of a vote saying, in a television ad, perhaps in a campaign, a little line across the bottom that says, "Voted so-and-so way on so-and-so issue." That's a little bit more concrete of a deal.

And there are some who also, I think, really have some legitimate concerns, certainly about the president's policy, but also about going on record and really having it firmly planted that this isn't just a doubt. This is something that they have that it is a doubt that they're willing to vote to back it up.

RAY SUAREZ: And earlier we spoke to Susan Collins. She's one of the Republicans who crossed the aisle and voted to end debate and consider the resolution, while Chuck Hagel, who is also a severe critic of the troop surge, did not, interestingly enough.

So what's the next shoe to drop? What are you looking to see happen so you'll know what the next step in the story is?

TIM STARKS: I think we'll have to see some negotiations pretty quickly between the Republican and Democratic leaders to try and get a compromise. If that doesn't happen very soon, I do sincerely believe that there is a very realistic chance this will move to next week or the week after or the week after.

That would be the thing is, if they can get some negotiations done tonight, tomorrow, that would be the -- those would be some of the timetables to look for, in terms of getting something done, so that they could have the resolution debated this week.

RAY SUAREZ: Tim Starks of Congressional Quarterly, thanks a lot.

TIM STARKS: Thank you.