The Senate Cooler

The Democratic plan was for Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Joseph Biden to sit down over the weekend with his longtime Republican colleague, Sen. John Warner, and hammer out a consensus bipartisan resolution opposing President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq. But Warner, who has been making backroom deals for 22 years in the Senate, informed Biden late last Thursday: No deal.

Warner wrote that the "will of the Senate" should be determined in "open" session, not closeted negotiations. That killed the Democratic leadership’s dream of passing a Biden-crafted anti-surge resolution by 70 votes or more. Such a proposal now cannot get the 60 votes needed for cloture to end a filibuster (and could fall short of the 50 senators needed for a simple majority). Conceivably, no resolution at all may be passed by the Senate.

Despite new Democratic control, the Senate remains sluggish, quirky and madly frustrating for anybody with an agenda. George Washington is reputed to have told Thomas Jefferson, skeptical about a bicameral Congress, that the Senate would be the saucer to cool hot tea from the House. More than two centuries later, the Senate saucer is cooling the boiling beverage from Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s House — even the widely popular increase in the minimum wage. To everybody’s surprise, Pelosi has held back quick House passage of an anti-surge resolution, awaiting action in the cooler Senate.

Biden wanted to force through his sharply worded (though non-binding) resolution. But advisers prevailed on him to meld his proposal with Warner’s milder non-approval language. Biden and his principal Republican co-sponsor, Sen. Chuck Hagel (second-ranking Republican on Foreign Relations), on Wednesday said they were ready to begin negotiating with Warner, the former Armed Services Committee chairman.

One of Biden’s advisers told me then that the negotiations should prove no problem because they were willing to accept "about 90 percent" of Warner’s resolution. Democrats complained that its present wording left the door open for further troop increases, and some questioned its first paragraph affirming the president’s constitutional role as commander in chief. Such language was supposed to have been massaged during the weekend.

But Biden was surprised late Wednesday afternoon to receive a blunt letter from Warner and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, the most conservative Democrat in the Senate. They asserted that they and other co-sponsors of the resolution "believe that issues set forth in [the resolution] should occur as a consequence of the will of the Senate, working in ‘open’ session, during floor debate and consideration." In other words, no private negotiations.

That stand poses a dilemma for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid because of bipartisan support for Warner’s resolution. Besides Ben Nelson, co-sponsors include Democrats Mary Landrieu (La.), Claire McCaskill (Mo.), Bill Nelson (Fla.) and Ken Salazar (Colo.), and Republicans Norm Coleman (Minn.), Susan Collins (Maine) and Gordon Smith (Ore.). If they all stick together, Biden cannot change the Warner resolution.

With Sen. Olympia Snowe (Maine) the only Republican other than Hagel backing Biden’s version, it may lack even enough votes for a simple majority. Reid faces a difficult choice. He could crack the whip on Democrats to get a majority to pass the Biden resolution (though falling short of enough for cloture). Or, he could swallow an unamended Warner resolution to win a bipartisan vote on record against additional troops.

Bush aides hope that pressure from Cabinet members and the president himself diminished GOP support for anti-war resolutions. The fact remains that almost no enthusiasm for the surge can be found there. Even Sen. John McCain, the early advocate of more troops, complains that a reinforcement of 21,000 is insufficient.

While many Republicans want to give their president what they call "one last shot" at a military solution in Iraq, there is pervasive pessimism about prospects for the new strategy. Republicans feel withdrawal of troops must begin in the next six months for their party to have any chance at retaining the presidency in 2008, and a Bush Cabinet member — not associated with national security — made that same assessment to me last week. The Senate is a tough place for somebody as assertive as Joe Biden to get his way, but that hardly connotes an expression of approval for sending more troops Iraq.