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.
White House Pooh-Poohs
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."
The Bill's Language
The amendment as voted upon is titled "Sense of Congress on Federalism in Iraq." It notes that the Iraqi constitution "declares that the "federal system in the Republic of Iraq is made up of a decentralized capital, regions, and governorates and local administrations," and emphasizes the "largely stable and peaceful" Kurdistan region.
The bill declares that "It is the sense of Congress that -- (1) the United States should actively support a political settlement in Iraq asked on the final provisions of the Constitution of Iraq that create a federal system of government and allow for the creation of federal regions.
The amendment calls for the international community -- those with troops in Iraq, members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Iraq's neighbors and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council -- "to support an Iraqi political settlement based on federalism."
Rice Opposed Bill Yesterday
White House spokesman Tony Fratto said that "there is absolutely no objection on the part of this administration that the Iraqis should have a federalist system."
That may be true, but Tuesday Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice wrote to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., opposing an earlier version of the Biden amendment by taking issue with three ideas that made their way to final passage.
Rice said that "the creation of additional federal regions is a sensitive issue best left to the Iraqis to address at their own pace. The United States should not be seen taking sides on a subject such as this. ?"
The Secretary of State also didn't like the amendment's call for the convening of "a conference" for Iraqis to reach an agreement on a comprehensive political settlement based on federalism. "By appearing to be forcing a solution to a problem that requires Iraqi ownership and consensus we could well undermine the stability we hope to achieve." And she took issue with the bill's assertion that the failure of Iraqis to reach a political settlement is a primary cause of violence in Iraq.
While some of the language has been finessed in certain ways -- the violence in Iraq is no longer said to be "increasing" -- the fundamental points that received such overwhelming support remained in the amendment.
"The Senate sent a strong message saying, 'We believe this is where this Iraq debate has to go -- a federalist system with semi-autonomous regions,'" said a senior aide to a Republican senator. About the White House's pushback, the aide scoffed. "They can't strongly oppose the bill in that Rice letter and also think it's meaningless."
The bill, however, does not require any action by the president -- it merely expresses the Senate's opinion. And it's an opinion with which the president would seem to disagree.
Asked about partitioning Iraq on Fox News Channel last October, Bush said, "I don't think that's the right way to go. I think that will increase sectarian violence. I think that will make it more dangerous --and so does Prime Minister Maliki with whom I spoke today."
The president went on to say such divisions would create "a situation where Sunnis and Sunni nations and Sunni radicals will be competing against Shia radicals, and the Kurds will then create problems for Turkey and Syria and you have got a bigger mess than we have at this point in time, which I believe is going to be solved."
Iraqis' Own Assessment
The plan continues to have limited support among Iraqis themselves.
An ABC News/BBC/NHK poll in August found 62 percent want to keep one unified Iraq with a central government in Baghdad.
The federal approach suggested in the Biden-Brownback Senate resolution gets only 28 percent support from Iraqis. Only Kurds would prefer to not keep the current structure.
Warner: 'The High-Water Mark'
Warner called the bill's passage an "extraordinary moment, because it marks the high-water mark of all the many debates and resolutions we've had in terms of bipartisanship."
Twenty-six Republicans voted for the measure, along with 47 Democrats and two independents. Two other presidential candidates, Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Barack Obama, D-Ill., did not vote.
In May 2006, Biden and Leslie Gelb, president emeritus of the Council on Foreign Relations, proposed the federalist solution in a New York Times op-ed.
"The idea, as in Bosnia, is to maintain a united Iraq by decentralizing it, giving each ethno-religious group -- Kurd, Sunni Arab and Shiite Arab -- room to run its own affairs, while leaving the central government in charge of common interests," they wrote. "We could drive this in place with irresistible sweeteners for the Sunnis to join in, a plan designed by the military for withdrawing and redeploying American forces, and a regional nonaggression pact."
Before Wednesday's vote, Biden aides anticipated fewer than 30 senators would support his proposal. The senator's longshot second run for the White House is built largely on the notion that he is the only candidate thinking seriously about solutions to issues surrounding the Iraq War.
ABC News' Jennifer Duck and Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.