Looking down from the Senate gallery Thursday you could see how much angst Iraq is causing Republicans.
Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, is not up for re-election next year, but she agonized on the Senate floor for five minutes at the end of the vote on the $122 billion bill for Iraq, Afghanistan and unrelated domestic items.
She huddled in intense conversation with GOP Leader Mitch McConnell and Republican Whip Trent Lott.
After all other senators had voted, finally she voted “No,” one of the 47 senators on the losing side as the Senate OK’d the Iraq bill, with all but two Republican senators voting against the measure.
The bill includes the “goal” — not a deadline — of a U.S. troop exit from Iraq by next March and requires troop withdrawal to start no later than 120 days after the date of enactment.
In theory, President Bush could comply with the bill by pulling out a small number of soldiers.
But the bill is not likely to be enacted: Bush has vowed to veto it.
Snowe: 'I was torn'
“A challenging vote, challenging.... It’s a tough one,” Snowe said after she stepped off the Senate floor. “I was torn about whether or not to support it going to conference, but on the other hand I didn’t want it to be misconstrued that I would support the 120-day timeline. That’s too immediate and too precise, I think, for our enemy…. I don’t want to telegraph too much to the enemy.”
House and Senate conferees will meet to reconcile their two Iraq bills and send a final measure to the president. At that point Bush will veto it; then he and Democratic leaders can get down to bargaining about a bill that both sides can live with.
Snowe’s hope: The House-Senate conference deletes the 120-day ticking time clock but keeps the goal of withdrawal by March 2008.
Snowe said, “You want to send a message to the administration that the direction is unacceptable and time is running out. Same is true to the Iraqi government: Time is running out. It’s as simple as that. And they better get their act together and pass the political reforms that will yield a more united Iraq.”
All GOP senators gave a thumbs-down to the bill Thursday, except for Oregon’s Gordon Smith and Nebraska’s Chuck Hagel, both of whom are up for re-election in 2008.
Democratic targets in 2008
Among the more vulnerable Republican senators up for re-election next year are:
- John Sununu of New Hampshire
- John Warner of Virginia
- Pete Domenici of New Mexico
- Norm Coleman of Minnesota
- Susan Collins of Maine
Will Democrats run campaign ads accusing them of depriving troops and veterans of the help they need?
The bill includes $1.8 billion for veterans care — as well as billions for unrelated items such as aid to ranchers.
Americans United for Change, a Democratic-allied group, is already targeting McConnell, up for re-election next year, with a television ad: “Kentucky sees it. Why won’t he? Tell Mitch McConnell: Stop blocking change in Iraq.”
Brad Woodhouse, president of Americans United for Change, said Wednesday that his group might go after other GOP senators in future ads.
The least risky course for the GOP senators would have been to vote “yes” on passage of the Senate bill and thus “vote for the troops” — knowing that the president will soon veto the bill anyway.
Sununu explains his 'no' vote
But Sununu said Wednesday, “There’s billions of dollars in it in items totally unrelated to our security or war fighting or the men and women serving overseas.”
And, he added, “It’s a mistake to tell our enemies what day we’re going to begin withdrawing troops and what day we’re going to finish withdrawing troops.”
Sununu said, “Everyone knows the president is going to veto this legislation. Unfortunately, that makes this a political exercise. I think we should take our responsibility more seriously.”
After the 2004 election, Bush’s strategist, Karl Rove, called Sen. John Kerry’s “I actually voted for it before I voted against it” statement on the 2003 Iraq spending bill “the gift that kept on giving.”
Now that the Democrats control the agenda, they can decide how best to force their opponents to cast awkward votes. Repeated votes on supporting the president’s Iraq policy could serve as the “gift that keeps on giving” in 2008.
Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., chief of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, suggested as much on Tuesday, saying that Democrats will seek to have vote after vote to put Republicans on the record.
Ratcheting up the pressure
Said Schumer, “Every time we have a vote like this, it ratchets up the pressure on the president and on many of those in his party who are caught” between their support for Bush and the desire of many for an early exit of U.S. troops.
Woodhouse said the polling indicates that the majority of the electorate wants out of Iraq.
But he noted, “The jury may still be out on how the public will react to a clash with the president that goes to the point of a veto.”
We’re about to find out how the public will react.