Senate Sees No Way Out On Iraq

Senate Republicans on Wednesday once again frustrated Democrats’ attempts to enact proposals changing U.S. policy in Iraq, leaving a bitterly divided Senate with no way forward on the issue and President Bush still firmly in charge of the war.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) plans to force more votes on Iraq next week, including two proposals to set firm deadlines for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq. But Republicans show few signs of breaking with Bush on the war, meaning there is little chance, if any, that the Democratic-measures will be enacted.

Senate Republicans blocked a bipartisan effort by Sens. Jim Webb (D-Va.) and Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) to restrict deployments for soldiers, Marines, reservists and National Guardsmen to Iraq by mandating they would have to be stationed home for at least as long as they are deployed.

The proposal, which had also been floated by House Democrats earlier this year, is seen by the administration, which has issued a veto threat, as a backdoor attempt to end the war, since it would restrict the number of troops that could be sent to Iraq.

Sen. John Warner (R-Va.), who backed a version of the Webb-Hagel amendment in July, reversed his course Wednesday and instead supported a nonbinding version of the proposal.

It is a tactic used repeatedly this year by Senate Republicans — offering a weaker, nonbinding version of a Democratic proposal on Iraq — and it succeeded once again on Wednesday. Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) offered a nonbinding “sense of the Senate” resolution calling for longer rest periods at home for troops returning for deployments, but it has no legal authority.

Without Warner’s support, which would provide political cover for other moderate Republicans concerned by the direction of the war, Democratic leaders and Hagel were not able to muster sufficient support to break a GOP filibuster of the proposal.

Warner, who recently announced his decision to retire, said he had been lobbied by Defense Secretary Robert Gates and senior Pentagon officials to oppose the amendment. And the senator argued that Bush’s recent decision to withdraw 5,700 troops from Iraq, sent as part of the “surge” in U.S. forces, “might not be achievable” if the Webb-Hagel plan were adopted.

The vote was 56-44, four short of the 60 needed to proceed.

A similar version of the proposal had garnered the same number of votes in July. But proponents had a tough time building on that vote after Army Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker told Congress last week that the Bush surge plan had shown progress in reducing sectarian violence, if not fostering movement on the political front as Bush had predicted would occur.

Hagel, one of the most vocal anti-war critics in the GOP, derided Bush for the outcome of the vote, suggesting that it was a major loss for those in Congress seeking a faster end to the war than the president had laid out a week ago in his Oval Office address.

“There’s no question the White House was effective in making this a loyalty test for the party,” Hagel said, adding, “I don’t think there’s going to be a meaningful change in votes ... until we get into next year. I just don’t think that’s going to happen.”

Webb, who like Warner served as secretary of the Navy, made a concerted effort to lobby his colleagues on his amendment. He used his leadership political action committee, Born Fighting PAC, to send out thousands of e-mails urging the public to pressure wavering senators to support his amendment.

And that e-mail message, as well as a Web video, were circulated by liberal bloggers and anti-war groups, though that effort appeared to have little impact on the final vote.

Reid has promised to hold additional Iraq votes next week, including proposals trequire most or all U.S. troops to be out of Iraq by next June or September.

While the Iraq stalemate in the Senate has been going on for months, a new centrist coalition may be forming, according to Democratic and GOP insiders.

For the past two days, a group of about six to eight moderate senators from both parties have met privately to discuss the war and what to do about it.

The meetings, led by Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.), were scheduled to discuss a recent congressional delegation trip to Iraq. A

nd even though the group was not meeting to discuss any bipartisan amendments on troop withdrawal, whenever a group of moderate Republican and Democratic senators get together to discuss an issue mired in gridlock, it evokes memories of the so-called “Gang of 14” senators who brokered a landmark deal on judicial nominations in 2005.

On Wednesday, the participants in the meeting included Baucus and Sens. Ken Salazar (D-Colo.), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Olympia Snowe (R-Maine) and Tom Carper (D-Del.).

Sen. Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), another moderate, was part of a similar meeting on Tuesday, according to staff familiar with the gathering.

While Democratic leaders have all but bailed on compromise language and GOP Senate leaders have hunkered down in opposition to all Democratic amendments, there seems to be growing support among moderates who want a way out on Iraq.

Sen. Ben Nelson (D-Neb.), who votes with Republicans almost as often as he votes with Democrats, is pushing an Iraq amendment that would force a change in the mission without establishing a timetable for withdrawal.

The measure, according to Nelson and Collins, could lead to significant withdrawals of troops because the mission would be limited to troop support, anti-terrorism, training and force protection.

But Democratic leaders have declined to allow the Nelson-Collins amendment on the floor, and Reid has not allowed votes on other bipartisan measures, such as a proposal by Salazar and Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) to enact the Iraq Study Group recommendations.
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