Reid's move to cut off debate followed a successful effort by Republican leaders to block a vote on an amendment co-sponsored by Jack Reed, a Democrat from Rhode Island, and the current chairman of the Armed Services Committee, Carl Levin, that would have required Bush to begin withdrawing U.S. combat troops before the end of this year and to complete the process by next May.
To force a vote on the amendment, the Democratic leadership needed 60 out of the 99 senators present, but it could muster only 52 -- 48 of 50 Democrats, as well as four Republicans who broke ranks with Bush, who has vowed to veto any legislation that includes a firm timetable for withdrawal.
The 52 votes were a hefty increase from the 39 who voted for a similar measure last year -- an illustration of the degree to which public support for the war has eroded -- but still eight votes short of the 60 needed to get past the Senate's arcane procedural rules, let alone the 67 needed to overcome a presidential veto.
After the vote, Reid vowed to bring up his amendment again, most likely when Congress begins considering an administration report due Sep. 15 on how well the so-called "surge" -- which has brought U.S. troop levels in Iraq up to nearly 170,000 over the past five months -- is accomplishing its goals. These include enhancing security in Baghdad, reducing sectarian violence, and promoting political reconciliation between Iraq's Shi'a, Sunni, and Kurdish communities.
"We will come back to this bill as soon as it is clear we can make real progress," he said.
Democrats hope that more Republicans will be prepared to break with the president and support a firm withdrawal deadline after hearing directly from their constituents during the August recess, particularly given the proximity of the November 2008 presidential elections when 21 Senate seats currently held by Republicans will also be up for grabs.
Public support for both Bush and the war -- even in solidly Republican so-called "red states" -- are at all-time lows, according to recent polling. Most analysts believe that Republicans who stick with the president and his Iraq policy are likely to face heavy retribution at the ballot box, just as they did in last year's mid-term elections which returned Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress.
That calculation appears to have contributed to Reid's decision to suspend debate on the defense bill without permitting votes on the more bipartisan Lugar-Warner or ISG amendments, according to political observers.
"You've got at least half a dozen Republican senators who are going to be very vulnerable next year, and you don't want to give them an easy out in the form of (the ISG amendment) or Lugar-Warner or anything like that," said Christopher Preble, a foreign-policy specialist at the libertarian Cato Institute.
He also noted that, while the two amendments may have attracted more support than the Reid-Levin proposal, there was no certainty that they could muster the 60 votes to overcome Republican procedural hurdles, let alone the 67 needed to overcome a Bush veto.
"What the Democrats are doing is trying to present a clear binary choice; their strategy is not really designed to win," noted Steven Clemons, director of the American Strategy Project at the New American Foundation. "That could be a disaster for them in 2008, because the cold, hard reality is that they want Bush and these Republicans to own the war and to be held accountable in the minds of the voters."
Still, Reid's decision to prevent a vote on the two bipartisan amendments provoked criticism, and not only from Republicans who supported them.
"You're in a position today where you want to exert, at least from a Democratic point of view, all possible pressure on the president to reverse or to change his policy," Hamilton told the daily edition of Congressional Quarterly. "If you can't get rigid timetables, you have to go to alternatives."
His view was echoed by Jim Cason, an analyst at the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker anti-war lobby. "It's good that the Democratic leadership forced this debate, but we're frankly disappointed that it didn't allow a vote on the ISG amendment.
"That could be the basis for the first bipartisan legislative challenge to Bush's policy, and, while Bush has made abundantly clear just this past week he's determined to stay the course in Iraq, the first step to getting that changed is to approve the ISG, and it was the Democrats who pulled it."
But another member of the Democratic leadership, Majority Whip Richard Durbin, rejected those criticisms. "I like Lee Hamilton and I certainly value his counsel, but I want American troops to start coming home," he told the Quarterly. "Anything short of a timetable is interesting but not effective."
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Albion Monitor July
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