Counting Iraq Votes In The Senate

[ Posted Friday, February 16th, 2007 – 18:43 UTC ]

The anti-escalation Iraq resolution passed the House today by a vote of 246 to 182. Seventeen Republicans crossed the aisle and voted for it, with two Democrats defecting to vote against it. The attention now swings to the Senate.

Majority Leader Harry Reid is annoying almost everyone in the Senate by holding a rare Saturday vote on the issue tomorrow.

Most annoyed are those senators (from both sides of the aisle) who are running for president and are now madly rescheduling their appearances. Dana Milbank of the Washington Post wrote an amusing article about the vote, complete with quotes from miffed senators, which is worth a read.

But the big question is: do they have the votes? The first vote will be to invoke cloture, meaning the anti-escalation faction needs 60 votes to even start the debate on the Iraq resolution. And it's not clear that there are the required 60 votes.

Let's do the math. We have 49 Democrats plus one Independent from Vermont. But that still may only equal 49 votes, since one of the Democrats is still recovering from hospitalization. He's reportedly doing better, and even speaking in sentences once again, but his presence on the floor to cast a vote is questionable at this point, as to my knowledge he has not done so since he went in to the hospital.

But for the sake of argument, let's be optimistic and say that the Democratic baseline is 50 votes. The other Independent, Joe Lieberman, is obviously going to vote against the resolution. Which means the Democrats need to pick up ten votes. There are seven Republican senators who signed a letter last week opposing the escalation, but the last time a cloture vote was held, only two of them voted with the Democrats. Again, let's be optimistic and assume they'll all vote with the Democrats this time around.

That adds up to 57 votes. And that is three votes short of the 60 which are needed. Can the Democrats convince three Republican senators (most likely, three who are up for reelection in 2008) to vote against their party in the hopes of keeping their jobs?

I certainly hope so, but I wouldn't bet money on it at this point. Especially since Harry Reid is not only holding a Saturday vote at the beginning of a holiday weekend, but he is also hinting that if they do get the 60 votes to go forward, he will hold sessions all next week to debate the resolution and have a floor vote on it. Congress gets all of next week off, so a vote for the resolution is a vote to deny yourself a week of vacation. Not exactly an enticement for those sitting on the fence. Or maybe Reid is being crafty, and will back down from his threat to take away the Senate's vacation in return for those three votes? That would be a brilliant piece of political hardball, if he could pull it off.

If Senate Democrats can get their 60 votes, then the resolution offered will be exactly the same one the House passed. Republicans are still trying to hold out for a vote on their "alternative" resolution as well, a resolution to cut off funding (that they don't believe in and won't vote for) that is intended to paint Democrats into a corner. But Reid has already stared this down once, so assumably he'll reject it again tomorrow.

Which means if they get 60 votes, the resolution is guaranteed to pass the Senate. Which is the end of the road for the resolution. Since the language will be exactly what the House voted on and since Bush doesn't get to sign or veto it, once the Senate passes it, it's done.

This will be a major victory for Democrats, as even though the measure is legally meaningless, it will prove that Democrats can stick together strongly enough to get contentious issues through both houses of Congress. For Democrats, as I said, this is a major victory in and of itself.

Whether Democrats win tomorrow's Senate vote or not (i.e. whether the resolution dies or is passed), it is just a first step toward ending the war. As I've written here before, this is going to be a marathon, not a sprint. The next stage will be more interesting, with three ideas currently in contention for what to do next.

Jack Murtha is proposing a brilliant piece of legislative jujitsu to attach to the war funding supplemental that Bush is going to ask Congress for soon (another $100 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan to get him through the end of the fiscal year). His plan is intricate and well-thought out and so well designed that voting against it would be seen as "not supporting the troops." I will go into his idea in more depth in a future column, I promise, as it really is worth an in-depth look.

There is also a group of 71 Democrats in the House that are pushing for ending the funding completely. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi doesn't think their measure has a chance of passing, so for now she has yet to voice support for the idea (although she is publicly supporting Murtha's effort). If that 71 grows into "a huge majority of Democrats" look for her to change her mind, but not until then.

Over in the Senate, Joe Biden is pushing to rescind the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF), the original bill that allowed Bush to invade Iraq. He would offer up a tightly-worded alternative AUMF which would lay out exactly what our troops could do, and what they couldn't do. Hillary Clinton is still pushing her idea of capping the number of troops. We'll see which ideas make it out of committee, and how much support they garner.

But again, I caution people to see things in the light of reality and not idealism (so you won't be disappointed later). Say the anti-escalation resolution goes through cloture, gets an up-or-down vote, and passes in the Senate. Say Murtha's plan passes for the supplemental funding. Even in this case, Bush will still get his "surge." The money that has already been appropriated will not run out until later in the spring, in April or May. And that money has no strings attached whatsoever. So Bush can quickly hustle the 21,500 soldiers into Iraq using these funds. Since Democrats have already stated over and over "we won't cut funds for troops already deployed," this means that even if Murtha tries to tie Bush's hands in the future, the President will still be able to move the troops in before it takes effect, and he will get his short-term "surge."

I didn't write this to rain on anyone's parade. It is indeed heartening to see the resolution make it out of the House with 17 Republicans supporting it. But it's not the end of the process. It's only the end of the first half-step. The next half-step comes tomorrow. But whether the Democrats have the votes to even get past that is at this time (sadly) doubtful.


[See the original Huffington Post article, complete with comments.]

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