McConnell (R-Ky.) surprised Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) by dumping the Republican version of a G.I. bill into an unrelated floor debate about union rights for firefighters and police offers.
The Senate floor immediately shut down, as Democrats said Republicans were acting in "bad faith" by trying to force a vote on the Republican GI bill _ backed by John McCain _ which is not as generous in its educational benefits for veterans as the Democratic bill.
McConnell says he simply wants a vote on the GOP version so that Republicans can have a vote on expanding veterans benefits. But Democrats, led by Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.), have been in delicate negotiations trying to pass a major G.I. bill, according to today's Politico story by David Rogers. It's not clear at this point if McConnell's move will spoil the effort by Webb to attach his GI bill to the Iraq funding legislation next week.
Webb said that as late as last night, he was negotiating with Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) on a breakthrough on the G.I. bill, so today's maneuver amounted to a sneak attack on the Senate floor.
"This was an irresponsible act done in bad faith," Webb said. "They have wrongly politicized issues of veterans' law."
Webb's version of the bill would give veterans tuition help for college after just three years of service, a move that the Defense Department has warned would hurt retention because soldiers might leave the military after just a few years looking for a free ride to college. Webb counters that these benefits are simply the same that were offered to World War II veterans.
Reid, who is in the midst of promoting his autobiography titled "The Good Fight," seemed ready to take that book title literally when McConnell offered his G.I. bill amendment. His lips pursed and his anger barely contained, Reid mocked Republicans, saying "maybe they want to break Hank Aaron's record on filibusters."
Reid quickly shut down Senate debate and the chamber was in a quorum call _ the Senate equivalent of a rain delay _ for about an hour. Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.), asked to speak, and Reid objected, denying Gregg the usual courtesy of letting a senator interject.
So while senators kick sand in one another's faces over this procedural surprise, Webb and McCain will have to figure out how the votes will settle on a major piece of veterans legislation.
Democrats believe McCain and his Senate surrogates are trying to give him some political cover so he can vote for the GOP version of the veterans bill if he later votes against the Democratic GI bill.
"This is about Sen. McCain's dilemma," Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) said. "Sen. McCain is looking for political cover here."
UPDATE: The Senate voted 55-42 to table the Republican amendment, so McCain's alternative on the G.I. bill appears dead for now. The Democratic version of the G.I. legislation will be attached to the Iraq bill next week, but Democrats are not likely to allow any amendments to the Iraq bill.
Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), speaking to reporters outside the chamber, said he only had one shot to offer the Republican veterans' benefits bill, and he warned that the Webb version would hurt retention for the U.S. military. Graham also criticized Democrats for creating a situation where Republicans who oppose the Democratic Iraq funding bill next week will also be portrayed as voting against veterans benefits.
"The idea that you are going to have us vote against vets adn then run [campaign] ads is not going to happen," Graham said. "This was my last shot" to offer the Republican G.I. bill.