Feb. 16, 2007 -- With the House voting 246-182 for a nonbinding resolution on Iraq Friday afternoon, attention swiftly turned to the Senate. Majority Leader Harry Reid has scheduled a Saturday vote. But it will not end debate there. In fact, it is only a procedural vote to decide whether to start debate that was blocked by bitter partisan differences. The outcome is uncertain.
That uncertainty prompted Pennsylvania Republican Arlen Spector to tell his colleagues that the Senate is "in real danger of becoming irrelevant." Spector said ruefully, "I think we ought to be at least equal. What we have here is close to anarchy. We've been debating the debate all week."
While Spector and some others in both parties have warned that the upper House (the Senate) looks weak compared with the lower House, the present standoff is hardly new. The Senate simply has different rules than the House, and those rules give senators in the minority vastly more power to create deadlock.
Democrats did it when the GOP was in control. Now Republican leader Mitch McConnell is using those rules, trying to get what he calls a fair break, a chance to vote on Iraq measures acceptable to his side.
Reid hopes that by calling senators back to a Saturday session, which means drawing presidential candidates in both parties away from weekend campaigning, he can somehow reach consensus. To do that, he needs not just a simple majority, but 60 votes. That would probably require 10 Republicans to line up with Democrats. GOP leaders say Reid will fail to win that much support from their side.
Democrats in both the House and Senate argued that they are not cutting off support for U.S. forces. Instead, they say they are trying to influence President Bush by showing opposition to his "surge" in Iraq, a decision to send 21,500 more troops there.
Shortly before the House vote, Speaker Nancy Pelosi said the resolution "may be nonbinding, but it will send a strong message to the president [that] we here in Congress are committed to protecting and supporting our troops. The passage of this legislation will signal a change in direction that will end the fighting and bring our troops home safely and soon."
House Minority Leader John Boehner, a Republican from Ohio, had dismissed the resolution as "a political charade, lacking both the seriousness and gravity of the issue it is meant to address."
At the White House, as the vote neared on the House floor, spokesman Scott Stanzel took a nonbelligerent approach toward the nonbinding resolution by saying Congress has a right to make its views known. But, Stanzel said, "the president will certainly fight very aggressively to make sure that the troops have the resources they need to do the job that he's asked them to do." Stanzel was echoing the warning Bush gave during his news conference this week.
Pelosi issued her own warning: "No more blank checks for President Bush on Iraq." Her close ally, Rep. John Murtha, chairman of an important spending committee, said he wants to put sharp restrictions on funding that would limit the president's ability to continue to send troops to Iraq.
But many Democrats are wary of any approach that might give Republicans political ammunition to accuse them of failing to back American forces. Even Murtha's friend Pelosi declined to embrace his proposal. She said she would have to see his ideas in writing before making a decision.
Some Democrats want even stronger action than Murtha seems to be proposing. On Friday, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., showed apparent contempt for a nonbinding resolution. He told the Senate, "By setting a date after which funding for the war will be terminated, as I have proposed, Congress can safely bring our troops out of harm's way."
But Feingold's measure stands virtually no chance of passage. Reid said he would not back legally binding legislation.
After an ice storm at midweek, Washingtonians are treading carefully, very carefully, as dangerous conditions continue. So it is with votes on Iraq. A great many politicians in both parties are trying very hard not to slip.