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Democrats Debate Health Care; Senate Weighs Iraq Measures

As Democrats debated health care policy Thursday night, the Senate hit a snag on the defense authorization bill. Analysts Mark Shields and Rich Lowry discuss the week's political news.

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  • JIM LEHRER:

    And to the analysis of Shields and Lowry, syndicated columnist Mark Shields, National Review editor Rich Lowry. David Brooks is off tonight.

    Rich, why can't the Senate get anything passed on Iraq?

  • RICH LOWRY, Editor, National Review:

    Well, the key here, for a long time, has been the moderate Republicans who are discontented with President Bush's strategy in the war, but aren't willing to go over to where the Democrats are, mandating a timetable for withdrawal or even a cutoff for funds.

    So unless Democrats get those Republicans, nothing is going to happen. And that's why we're supposed to have this cataclysmic debate over the war in September, and it's ending in a whimper, exactly where we were earlier in the year.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    In fact, the Democrats — do you read it the same way, Mark, that, actually, the Democrats are losing steam rather than gaining steam on this?

  • MARK SHIELDS, Syndicated Columnist:

    They certainly are not getting any momentum at all, Jim, and probably their hope, the highest hope Democrats had, was in the amendment offered by Jim Webb, the freshman Democrat from Virginia, himself former secretary of the Navy and company commander in combat Marine Corps in Vietnam, which was that the dwell time had to be — that is, the time away from the deployment into combat zone — had to be equal to the time in combat.

    Contrast that, for example, the British, where their troops are six months in Iraq, two years, 24 months out. And that's historically been the case with the Americans.

    And it's not just being away; it is obviously retraining, it's refurbishing, it's restoring. And it had gotten 56 votes in the summer, in July when it was up. And it comes to vote this time with Tim Johnson, the Democrat returned to the Senate from a hemorrhage, and John Warner, his colleague who had supported him in July, five minutes before the vote, says he can't be with him, responding to an entreaty by the secretary of defense that this would screw up — might screw up the troop rotation of the troops who are already there, even though Webb had put in 120-day enforcement provision that would take us up to Christmas.

    But, you know, when you don't get it on this one, which strikes me as totally reasonable, and I think struck probably a majority of the Senate, then I think that…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    And then you lost the next two…

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Feinberg and then today, the Levin thing.

  • MARK SHIELDS:

    Feingold. Feingold.

  • JIM LEHRER:

    Feingold, right.

    Rich, analyze this, as to, why is it that more Republicans won't go with the Democrats on this?

  • RICH LOWRY:

    Well, first of all, specifically on the Webb amendment, I think that key Republicans found the Pentagon's objections persuasive onto how hard this would be to manage. And also, if it passed and became law, the likeliest way a commander on the ground would deal with it, if it was pinching him, and if he needed more troops, wouldn't be to say, "OK, forget about this war, we don't actually need those more troops," would be either to extend the tours more or to call up National Guard units, and no one relishes either of those prospects.

    But I think the key thing here is, conditions improved somewhat in Iraq, and I think that's always been the key to the debate. Now, you can argue about how much they've improved, but it's certainly stabilized the political state of the war.

    And I compare it a little bit, if you go skydiving, you go in a freefall, you know, you're falling, I don't know how fast, extremely fast, and then when your parachute goes up, you feel as though you're being yanked up. You're not really being yanked up. You're just falling less quickly, but the rate of change has changed, and you feel that sharply.

    And I think that the Iraq debate is a little bit like that. It's stabilized. You know, it's not going up for the Republicans; they're not happy where they are, but it's stabilized. And that meant the downward trajectory stopped and Democrats who were trying to force a date for withdrawal just are stuck.