Listening to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last weekend boast he had the votes to prevent closing Senate debate on Iraq, Republicans opposing President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq feared the worst. The new Republican leader sounded as though he wanted to prevent passage of an anti-surge resolution at the cost of making his party look obstructionist. That’s exactly what happened.
McConnell’s tactics resulted in no resolution passed by the Senate any time soon. The White House was overjoyed. But Tuesday’s newspaper headlines indicated a public relations fiasco for Republicans: "GOP Stalls Debate On Troop Increase" (Washington Post); "In Senate, GOP Blocks a Debate Over Iraq Policy" (New York Times); "Vote on Iraq is Blocked by GOP" (USA Today). Considering that outcome from a tactical victory, the Republicans might be better off with a strategic defeat. It is unclear who won in the Senate this week.
McConnell’s maiden voyage as party floor leader showed he may be too much into process. Seldom has the Republican case been presented more poorly than it was Monday. But in his first big test as majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid overreached trying to control the action. The developments also showed less than full control of his own Democratic caucus.
From the start, there has been a clear Senate bipartisan majority opposed to the 21,000-troop reinforcement. But nothing is that simple in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Joseph Biden pushed a harshly worded resolution through his Foreign Relations Committee, largely on party lines. It was obvious it could not collect the 60 votes needed to cut off debate, a prerequisite in today’s Senate.
The prestigious Republican Sen. John Warner drafted a more conciliatory anti-surge resolution, with substantial Democratic support. On Jan. 25, Warner wrote Biden he would not negotiate. That left Reid the choice of pressuring Democratic defectors or embracing Warner. He took the latter course, after making cosmetic changes.
But the White House and McConnell lobbied against Warner and pushed a unique new approach: Republican Sen. Judd Gregg’s resolution, ignoring the surge and saying Congress "should not . . . endanger United States military forces in the field" by "elimination or reduction of funds." That is the funding question that most Democrats in Congress desperately want to avoid.
Next, Reid stretched his authority in a way that I have not seen in a half-century of Senate-watching. He decreed that, besides the Warner resolution (now co-sponsored by Sen. Carl Levin, his Democratic successor as Armed Services Committee chairman), the Senate would vote on one Republican resolution. What made this unique was that Reid dictated that the one amendment would be not Gregg’s but Sen. John McCain’s, which endorsed the troop surge and could not command close to 60 votes. The Gregg amendment probably would have gotten 70 votes.
McConnell convinced Republicans that they could not let the Democratic leader pick their amendment. Reid on Monday got only 49 votes (including but two Republicans, Susan Collins and Norm Coleman) for imposing cloture on taking up the issue. Warner and Sen. Chuck Hagel, the toughest Republican critic of the surge, voted no on cloture. The Democratic caucus informed Reid Tuesday that it would not accept a compromise putting both the Warner and Gregg resolutions before the Senate. Reid set aside the whole issue rather than permit a vote that would divide and embarrass Democrats.
"Mitch McConnell is a master behind the scenes, but he has a lot to learn about going public," said a Senate Republican insider who did not want his name used. Appalled by Tuesday morning’s headlines, Republicans regrouped that day by delivering a substantive message. McCain was particularly vigorous, antagonizing Reid and other Democrats by contending that anti-surge resolutions say to U.S. troops that "we think they are going to fail, and this is a vote of no confidence."
Democratic senators, given their message of the day, trooped onto the Senate floor to claim Republicans had blocked debate over Iraq. That claim might seem peculiar to C-SPAN watchers who this week listened to hours of debate over the war. The true Democratic complaint was that Republicans prevented Harry Reid from ordering parameters of that debate. The minority in the Senate, unlike the House, has rights it exercises even if Republicans characteristically have trouble explaining this to the public.