Senators hold press conference on Iraq War resolution
Win Mcnamee  /  Getty Images file
Sen. Norm Coleman, R- Minn., right, listens Monday to Sen. John Warner, R-Va., left, explain the resolution that Warner and Sen. Ben Nelson, D- Neb., center, are offering on Iraq. They oppose the troop surge, but say the United States should keep fighting terrorists in al Anbar province. 
By Tom Curry National affairs writer
updated 1/25/2007 7:41:56 AM ET 2007-01-25T12:41:56

“I’m not ready to pull the plug,” declared Sen. Norm Coleman, R- Minn. Wednesday. Coleman is one of a dozen or so Senate Republicans who oppose President Bush’s troop surge in Iraq, but have not given up on the U.S. deployment.

He happens to face re-election next year, so the votes he casts this week and next could be career-ending decisions.

Coleman recruited support, Wednesday, for his resolution telling Bush that Congress doesn’t approve sending U.S. troops into the maw of ethnic conflicts in Baghdad, but does support the Marines killing terrorists in al Anbar province.

“I want to make sure that by these resolutions we’re not saying, ‘we’re going to ignore the commanders on the ground,” Coleman said Wednesday.

When Coleman toured Anbar Province in Iraq last December, U.S. officers there told him, “We could use more troops.”

Marine Maj. Gen. Richard Zilmer told him, “We make progress every day. We kill the bad guys.” So Coleman argued, “If our folks on the ground are saying, ‘we’re making progress against the insurgency, we’re making progress against foreign fighters,’ then we need to support them.”

Little success in getting supporters
You could call Coleman’s approach threading the needle, walking tiptoe down a winding path, or practicing high-minded legislative craftsmanship.

However one defines his efforts, Coleman didn’t succeed Wednesday: in a vote in the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he got only three of the committee’s other 21 members to vote for his language which said the Congress disapproved of Bush’s surge, but also said Congress was open to increasing U.S. forces when requested by commanders in areas such as Anbar province where they are battling al Qaida and other terrorists.

After Coleman saw his own measure scuttled Wednesday, he, along with eight other Republicans, voted against the resolution offered by committee chairman Sen. Joe Biden, D- Del. and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., which stated that increasing U.S. forces in Iraq is “not in the national interest.”

Hagel stressed to his colleagues, “We are not talking about cutting off funds.”

Coleman has signed on to a rival measure offered by Sens. Ben Nelson, D-Neb., John Warner, R-Va., and Susan Collins, R- Maine, which says the Senate disagrees with Bush’s surge and urges him to think about other options, yet insists that it doesn’t mean to question his authority as commander in chief.

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Next week the Senate will likely vote on both the Biden-Hagel resolution and the Warner-Collins-Nelson one.

Whether Bush takes any notice of either resolution is an open question, although Sen. Chris Dodd, D-Conn., who voted for the Biden-Hagel measure in the Foreign Relation Committee Wednesday, explained that there's nothing in it that "requires him to respond in any way." The resolution does not need Bush's signature and does not have the force of law.

(Dodd prefers his own measure which would put a ceiling on the number of U.S. troops in Iraq; if passed, Dodd's measure would require Bush's signature but he'd likely veto it.)

The ruckus over mere statements
To those outside the nation’s capitol it might seem bizarre to see a ruckus over statements which, even if approved by Congress, would have no legally binding effect on Bush.

Coleman himself said, “I don’t think nonbinding resolutions do very much: they simply afford us an opportunity to express our perspective on the issue, that’s all they do.”

But senators are in no hurry to do what their predecessors did in 1973: cut off funds, thus forcing the president to pull the troops out. 

Coleman said he is telling his constituents: “I’m not prepared to cut off funding.”

And on that point, he seems to be in line with national public opinion: in the new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, when respondents were asked if they would favor Congress cutting off funding for the Iraq war “as a way to ensure that President Bush does not have sufficient funds to send troops to Iraq,” 52 opposed that idea, while 41 percent favored it.

Coleman treads carefully. And there's reason to do so: last November, Minnesota’s Republican Senate candidate Mark Kennedy — a supporter of Bush’s Iraq policy — not only was defeated, but got only 38 percent, the lowest vote by a Senate candidate in Minnesota since World War II.

But if Coleman goes against Bush too sharply, he risks losing even some of that 38 percent Republican hard core of loyalists.

Democrats target Coleman
“We’re going to go after Norm Coleman something fierce,” vowed Brad Woodhouse, a former Democratic campaign operative who is now with a coalition of Democratic-affiliated groups called Americans against Escalation in Iraq.

“He is a key target of our anti-escalation effort. We are surprised and we think the people of Minnesota will be surprised by his vote” against the Biden-Hagel resolution.

Comedian and author Al Franken, who seems to poised to run against Coleman next year, issued a statement Wednesday saying, “I support the Foreign Relations Committee's decision to finally stand up to the President's misguided Iraq policy. I think the votes of those who still choose to stand with the President instead speak for themselves."

Coleman sounds frosty when reporters’ questions to him link his Iraq stand with next year’s election.

“It’s frustrating that every time you see discussion of folks involved (in the Warner-Nelson-Collins proposal) you see ‘they’re running for re-election,’” he said this week. (Democrat Nelson was just re-elected; the others are up for re-election in 2008.)

“This is a life-or-death issue for Minnesota National Guard men and women, 2,600 of them in Iraq right now,” Coleman said, putting the politics in sobering perspective.

Coleman’s own career illustrates the twists of fate that can put one man in the Senate and another in the grave. In 2002, after the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone in a plane crash before Election Day, Democrats put former vice president Walter Mondale on the Minnesota ballot.

Coleman beat Mondale, but only got 49.5 percent of the vote, reason enough for him to be nervous about next year’s election, even if there were no Iraq.

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