July 17, 2007 -- Senators are apparently set to pull an all-nighter today after Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said he'd keep the Senate in session to consider forcing an Iraq troop withdrawal deadline on President Bush.
Democrats want to vote on their binding amendment to place a timetable on withdrawing combat troops from Iraq, but Republican leaders don't want to let them.
The Republicans, as is their right, are insisting the amendment get 60 votes to pass a procedural motion to limit debate, but that cloture vote will likely come after the all-nighter, some time Wednesday.
"If the Republicans are going to play procedural games … then they're going to have to live with the fact that the American people are going to be watching this all night," Reid said.
Because Republicans won't consent to an up or down vote, Democrats say they are filibustering. The filibuster is, for the most part, a thing of the past. It's not Jimmy Stewart reading off letters and ma's recipe to literally keep the place from functioning. Nowadays, senators simply say they will filibuster and agree to respect each other's right to do so and move on.
But in this case, Reid said he is going to keep everyone tonight to teach them a lesson.
"We've talked a lot about filibusters, but, you know, people have gotten pretty lazy about filibusters around here," Reid said at a news conference on Capitol Hill. "They just say, 'OK, you're going to filibuster. OK, we'll back off then.' That isn't the way it's going to be on Iraq, the most important issue facing the American people."
While Reid's homage to the filibuster could make for good late-night television, it probably will not change the outcome of anything. When the Senate votes on cloture for the withdrawal amendment Wednesday, no matter how long senators stay tonight, it is unlikely to reach the 60-vote threshold.
In that regard, Reid's gesture is as much theater as "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Despite a number of high-profile rhetorical defections from the White House among Republicans, most will probably not support the proposal, offered as an amendment to the annual defense policy bill, to withdraw all combat troops out of Iraq by April of 2008 and transition those remaining troops to train Iraqi troops, perform counterterror operations and help patrol Iraq's borders.
"Staying in session, we're going to give Republican senators an opportunity to explain where they stand and how they're going to vote," said the No. 2 Democrat in the Senate, Majority Whip Dick Durbin of Illinois.
Durbin said: "Many senators have been back home, telling their constituents they've given up on the president's policy in Iraq. Well, the question is, will they have the courage now to vote with those who want real change and support the Levin-Reid amendment? It isn't good enough to say, 'Well, I supported some other amendment that didn't have a timetable, that didn't bring troops home.' That isn't good enough. If you really want to change the policy, you can't rely on the discretion of a president who doesn't understand the reality of the war in Iraq. That's what this debate is all about."
Late Monday on the Senate floor, Durbin engaged in a debate with one of those Republicans who had expressed frustration with the White House strategy in Iraq, Virginia Sen. John Warner, who told Durbin that no matter what, he could not support a binding timetable for withdrawal because it would usurp the president's constitutional power as commander in chief and could thrust Iraq even further into civil war.
Warner has sponsored an amendment that is similar to the Democratic version, but it strips all binding language out of it. Republicans also want votes on several other Iraq policy measures, including a pro-White House statement that withdrawal from Iraq could lead to disaster there. Democratic leaders, while they may allow votes on those later, are trying to cast their withdrawal vote as an up or down statement on the war.
Republican Jeff Sessions of Alabama has not yet broken with the president and he criticized Democrats on the Senate floor for trying to pull out American combat troops.
"The terrorists are sophisticated to get bloody headlines to affect the American public opinion. Our very souls … are being tested," Sessions said.
Of course, all of this could still be avoided and senators could get their beauty sleep if Reid and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky reach "unanimous consent" — the Senate's version of a gentleman's agreement — to go home early.
But they probably won't. And it wouldn't be the first time. Most recently, however, it was Republicans keeping Democrats in session to prove the point about filibustering. On Nov. 13, 2003, then-Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist kept the Senate in session for 30 straight hours of debate on judicial nominees.
Democrats had blocked four, and kept blocking them through the filibuster, though two have become judges in the years since then.