As more U.S. forces head to Iraq, senators across the political spectrum denounced President Bush’s plan for a troop “surge” Thursday but were waging a behind-the-scenes battle over how strongly they could afford to confront him.
Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., told NBC News that Democratic and Republican senators were reacting with “anguish” to the dilemma in which they found themselves: how to rebuke Bush for the lack of progress on stemming violence in Iraq without weakening the commander-in-chief in a time of war. A lot of senators, he said, “don’t know how to react.”
The question is not whether the Senate can muster a majority to take Bush to task over the war. The question is how strongly they can word the resolution and still overcome a likely filibuster by supporters of the president and some wavering Republicans, who argue that Congress should take no action that could be seen as abandoning U.S. troops in the field. Overcoming a filibuster would take 60 votes.
“Well, that’s the difficulty. A resolution that says we’re against this escalation is easy,” said Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, a member of the Democratic leadership. “The next step is how do you put further pressure on the administration against the escalation while still supporting the troops who are there right now.”
“And that’s what we’re figuring out,” Schumer said in an interview on NBC’s TODAY show. “But this will not be the end. There will be other resolutions with more teeth in them, and my bet [is] they’ll get a majority of support with significant Republican support.”
Navigating a delicate course
Senate leaders in essence have to thread the needle.
One on side of the equation are liberal Democrats who strongly oppose the war, such as Russ Feingold, D-Wis., who said: “This is not a time for trying to forge a compromise that everybody can be part of. This is a time to stop the needless deaths of American troops.”
On the other are moderate Democrats and Republicans eager to prove they heard the message of antiwar voters in November while not leaving the troops in the lurch, such as John McCain, R-Ariz., who said, “The goal is to try to salvage this situation and not send the additional troops with a message of disapproval.”
The Senate Foreign Relations Committee voted 12-9 Wednesday for a non-binding resolution opposing Bush’s plan to increase the U.S. commitment in Iraq by as many as 21,500 troops. The resolution is scheduled for a vote in the full Senate next week, but some senators, led by John Warner, R-Va., were pushing a competing resolution that would stop short of outright opposition.
That resolution, which was introduced Monday, would “disagree” with a buildup of U.S. troops while urging Bush to revisit the findings of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. That option would give undecided senators the chance to chart a middle course, said Larry Sabato, a presidential scholar at the University of Virginia.
“You can say, ‘Well, yes, I’m disagreeing with President Bush, but I’m agreeing with John Warner,’” Sabato told NBC’s Chip Reid.
Bush opponents challenged to propose a better idea
Members of the Foreign Relations Committee who supported the anti-surge resolution said they were confident that they would persuade enough senators to oppose the president’s plan.
“When we get to the floor, I think there will be more Republicans joining us, and I think that the debate will be increasingly important both for the White House to hear as well as the American people,” Sen. Robert Menendez, D-N.J., said in an interview with MSNBC’s Chris Jansing. “This is the least that we can do to send a message to the president that he needs to go back to the drawing board and work with us in a bipartisan effort.”
But supporters of the president said that while they understood that lawmakers would want to go on the record criticizing the war, passing a non-binding resolution was the lazy way out.
“One of my main disappointments with the resolution we debated in committee yesterday is it’s not a plan,” said Sen. David Vitter, R-La., a member of the Foreign Relations Committee who was among the few Republicans to endorse Bush’s plan outright.
“Everybody ... has a right to oppose a plan — to oppose the president’s plan — if that’s what they decide,” Vitter said in an interview with Jansing. “But I also think everybody has a responsibility to be for some plan going forward.”
For its part, the administration said it was not surprised by Wednesday’s vote but hoped Congress would give it more time to let Bush’s plan work.
White House press secretary Tony Snow pointed to remarks Thursday by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki as proof that the troop commitment had emboldened the Iraqi government. Al-Maliki told Parliament that he was beginning a crackdown that would leave militants with “no safe haven — no school, no home, no [Sunni] mosque or Shiite mosque.”
“It is clear that a sign of American determination not only builds confidence but also activism on the part of the Iraqi government,” Snow told reporters aboard Air Force One as Bush flew to Missouri for a speech pushing his health insurance plan. “And we continue to believe that it’s important to make it clear to the Iraqis that our job is to help them build capability, and we’ll do it.”
Military families still on board — for now
As the debate was playing out, more members of the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division have begun arriving in Iraq as part of the increased troop commitment.
In Fayetteville, N.C., where the 82nd is based, family members of the soldiers so far are standing behind the president’s plan, NBC’s Donna Gregory reported Thursday.
“When I look at my little boy, one thing I think is I don’t want his generation to still have to be going over to the Middle East and worrying about conflicts in the Middle East,” said Megan Schlanser, the wife of an 82nd Airborne soldier who has known colleagues who died in Iraq.
“I want this done with my generation,” she said. “I want my son to be able to feel that there is peace in the world and think, ‘Well, my dad helped with that.’”
A small but growing minority, however, is turning against the deployment, Gregory reported. About 100 families were expected to board a charter bus to Washington this weekend to join a protest by relatives of military personnel.
“The war has been just a mistake from the very beginning,” said Catherine McLin, the wife of a mental health officer who counsels soldiers traumatized in Iraq.
“So we were misled. It went on for years,” McLin said. “It’s not getting any better. It’s getting worse. More families are suffering. More families are getting destroyed. More people are dying. Let’s end it.”
MSNBC’s Chris Jansing and Mike Viqueira; NBC’s Donna Gregory in Fayetteville, N.C.; and NBC’s Chip Reid in Washington contributed to this report.