This week’s Senate debate on Iraq was symbolic — neither of the two competing proposals offered by Democrats had any chance of passing.
Although symbolic, the votes on the two amendments give important indicators that Iraq will be a decisive issue both in Senate races this November and in the presidential race in 2008.
President Bush’s opponents say he has sunk his presidency in a war that promises no clear victory. But whether it was his intent or not, Bush’s policy also seems to have succeeded in trapping Democrats in a tormented and apparently endless debate on Iraq.
Perhaps that was why Senate Republican Whip Mitch McConnell of Kentucky sounded so satisfied when he talked to reporters Tuesday.
GOP happy to see Democrats divided
“We’re very comfortable with this debate and happy to have it,” McConnell said. “The Democrats are having an interesting debate among themselves… We’ve enjoyed watching them have this debate.”
But Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., a likely contender for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008, had a very different take on the debate. Speaking to reporters after Thursday's vote, Biden acknowledged, “We may have our divisions … there is some disagreement in the Democratic party,” but, he said, “the Republicans are totally united in a failed policy.”
The concern for Democrats as they head into November's elections is clarity on Iraq. In many races Democrats will not offer voters a distinct choice of withdrawal from Iraq, as opposed to the president’s policy.
One of the Democratic proposals the Senate rejected Thursday would have urged Bush to begin withdrawing troops from Iraq this year; the other would have required Bush to pull out most U.S. troops by July 1, 2007.
Neither of them got more than 39 votes.
There was no Senate majority even for the limited proposal offered by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich. and Sen. Jack Reed, D- R.I., which would not have affected funding for the Iraq operation and merely "urges" Bush to begin pulling out an unspecified number of troops this year. That amendment was rejected 60-to-39 in Thursday's Senate vote.
Nevertheless, Levin proudly pointed out after the vote, “every Democrat in the U.S. Senate who is thinking about running for president voted for our resolution.”
Most of the Senate’s week was consumed not by real debate but by the usual sequential speechmaking. But late Wednesday night, there was an hour of intense, old-fashioned debate between Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass, co-sponsor of the withdraw-by-2007 measure (which was rejected 86-13), and Sen. John Warner, R- Va., with the two men firing point, and counter-point, back and forth.
Warner's emotional trump card
Warner played an emotional trump card — referring to the killing and mutilation of two American soldiers in Iraq this week.
He told Kerry if the Senate enacted his withdraw-by-2007 measure, the terrorists who tortured those soldiers will conclude, “We behead two and what did Congress do? It passed a law which required withdrawal by July 2007.”
He lectured Kerry, “Timing in life is everything.”
Again, whether it was Bush’s intent or not, his Iraq policy has set the stage for Democrats to clash with each other.
Explaining his vote against the withdraw-in-2007 amendment offered by Kerry and Sen. Russ Feingold, fellow Democrat Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois said, “I share their frustration with the administration,” but “I continue to be concerned about a date certain for a pullout.”
But Feingold said the Levin-Reed amendment “does not set a clear frame of when this thing is going to end and without that, we’re missing the point,” Feingold said. The Levin-Reed proposal “does not do the job.”
Lieberman warns of 'retreat'
The fratricidal conflict among Democrats is most clearly on display in Connecticut where Ned Lamont is challenging Sen. Joe Lieberman.
Lieberman further antagonized the anti-war element in his party by going to the Senate floor Wednesday night to declare that withdrawing from Iraq would be “retreat.” And he said “the consequences of an American retreat and defeat would be terrible.”
He added that enactment of the Levin-Reed amendment might lead to “the terrorists who attacked us on 9/11 being able to claim victory in Iraq and going on, emboldened, to attack us again here at home.”
In response, Lamont spokeswoman Liz Dupont-Diehl said, “This is another example of why people call Senator Lieberman George Bush's favorite Democrat. The people of Connecticut are tired of hearing over and over that we've just ‘turned a corner’ and then seeing the bloodshed accelerate.”
With the election only four months away, Iraq seemed to be causing grief for a couple of Republican Senate candidates too.
One state where voters will have a clear choice on Iraq will be in Ohio where Rep. Sherrod Brown challenging two-term incumbent Republican Mike DeWine.
Last week, Brown voted against a House resolution stating that it is not in America’s interest “to set an arbitrary date for the withdrawal or redeployment” of troops from Iraq.
Talking to reporters just off the Senate floor on Wednesday DeWine sounded truly agonized. He wasn’t voicing the mellow confidence of McConnell.
People in Ohio “want us clearly out of Iraq,” he said, but “want us to finish the job in a way that our own security is preserved,” so “people are very torn.”
In Rhode Island, Republican Lincoln Chafee, the only GOP senator to vote against authorizing Bush to use force against Iraq, faces a conservative primary opponent, Steve Laffey. If he survives Laffey’s challenge, he then must beat Democrat Sheldon Whitehouse.
Chafee told reporters Wednesday he worries that “too precipitous a withdrawal could have adverse effects on some of our friends in the region, most particularly Jordan and King Abdullah.”
Chafee acknowledged the election year pressures that make the Iraq votes risky ones for him.
“I have a primary electorate that’s so different from my general election electorate,” Chafee said. “On every vote, I’m going to be under attack.”