Senators proposing a plan to separate Iraq into three semi-autonomous regions received surprisingly overwhelming bipartisan support Wednesday in a vote seeming to signify deep bipartisan concerns about the administration's direction in Iraq. The White House, however, belittled the move as essentially comporting with its own view, a response Republicans on Capitol Hill greeted with derision.
The nonbinding, so-called Sense of the Senate resolution calls upon the Bush administration to pursue federalist, semi-autonomous regions in Iraq -- presumably Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish entities -- with a modest federal government located in Baghdad.
This would be instead of the strong central government the White House currently backs. Indeed, President Bush has decried any partitioning of Iraq, saying such a move would increase sectarian violence.
The bill, which passed by a vote of 75 to 23, was pushed by two second-tier presidential candidates from extreme opposite sides of the political spectrum: Sens. Joe Biden, D-Del., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Sam Brownback, R-Kan.
Their White House prospects notwithstanding, Biden and Brownback succeeded where the Democratic leadership failed -- repeatedly -- and cobbled together a bipartisan coalition for an amendment that runs counter to the president's Iraq policy.
The Biden-Brownback amendment also calls for the launch of a major international diplomatic push in the Middle East by the White House.
In a press conference after the vote, Biden said his plan shows how to "end this war in a way that we are able to ultimately ? bring our troops home and leave a stable Iraq behind."
"This begins the political surge," said Brownback, paraphrasing New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, as is the Kansan's wont.
Some Senate Republicans and the White House sought to diminish the importance of the vote by emphasizing a clause Biden had added, in consultation with one the most respected GOP voices on the military, former Navy Secretary and Sen. John Warner of Virginia. The clause notes that the federalist system the Senate is calling for in Iraq would only be "consistent with the wishes of the Iraqi people and their elected leaders."
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said,"It's not a particularly relevant amendment in that the essential language of the amendment says the Iraqis will determine the nature and structure of their domestic institutions. And that's the essential point of our policy."
But Republicans in support of the amendment disputed that was the point of the amendment. Indeed, one of the president's own senators, Kay Bailey Hutchison issued a press release Wednesday evening stating that she had "voted for a plan to create three semi-autonomous regions to help ease sectarian violence in Iraq. The plan allows the Iraqis to create a decentralized, federal style of government with separate, semi-autonomous states." A senior Republican Senate aide whose boss supported the Biden amendment laughed when he read the White House response.
"I guess I'd say the same thing if I were them," the aide said, disputing the accuracy of the White House assertion. "Nobody in the White House was talking about a federal solution yesterday."