Majority Leader Harry Reid yesterday vowed to keep the Senate in session around the clock to highlight Republican unwillingness to allow a simple majority vote on legislation calling for the withdrawal of most U.S. combat troops from Iraq by April 30.
The Senate's Democratic leaders said Republicans are blocking efforts to change the course in Iraq and setting up a filibuster by clinging to the 60-vote threshold needed to end debate.
"This week, we will make Republicans answer for their refusal to allow an up-or-down vote on the most important issue facing our country today," the Nevada senator said.
Republicans called the maneuver a political stunt, predicting there were neither enough votes to end debate nor to override a promised veto from President Bush on any legislation that sets withdrawal dates.
"We've had a 60-vote threshold on virtually every [recent Iraq] amendment," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican. "This has been the way we've dealt with, I think, essentially every controversial Iraq amendment this year."
The procedural battle erupted yesterday as the Senate prepares to vote on an amendment to the $649 billion defense authorization bill that calls for funding military operations through fiscal year 2008, which begins Oct. 1. Democrats say defense authorization bills typically only require a 51-vote majority for passage, but Republicans have been opposed to bypassing the 60-vote cloture procedure.
Mr. Reid promised continuous debate and votes beginning today through tomorrow when a vote is expected on the amendment.
"How many sleepless nights have our soldiers and their families spent, waiting to find out whether they'll come home alive?" said Sen. Richard J. Durbin, Illinois Democrat. "It's about time for the Senate to spend at least one sleepless night. Maybe it's only a symbol, but it's an important symbol."
The amendment by Sens. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, and Jack Reed, Rhode Island Democrat, requires most combat troops to leave Iraq by April 30, although a limited number of troops would remain for an undetermined amount of time to protect U.S. and coalition interests, train Iraqi security forces and conduct counterterrorism operations.
The Senate less than two months ago defeated a similar measure, which called for setting a firm date for troop reductions and cutting off war funds by March 31 to most military operations in Iraq. That proposal died in a 67-29 procedural vote, with 47 Republicans, 19 Democrats and one independent voting to block the plan.
Senate Republicans on Wednesday filibustered Democrats' efforts to set a minimum length for rest time for troops between deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan, saying it was an attempt to micromanage the Iraq war. The proposal, sponsored by Sen. James H. Webb Jr., Virginia Democrat, was defeated in a procedural vote, garnering a 56-41 majority, four votes shy of the needed 60. Seven Republicans voted with the majority.
A day later, the House passed a bill to withdraw most troops from Iraq in April by a vote of 223-201, but the measure fell far short of the two-thirds majority needed to override a promised veto. The same day, the White House released the first of two reports required by Congress that showed Iraqis have made "satisfactory" progress on about half of the 18 benchmarks.
Democrats are counting on a growing list of Republican senators who are voicing opposition to the Bush administration's handling of the war, including Sens. Pete V. Domenici of New Mexico and Richard G. Lugar of Indiana. But Republicans say the Democrats shouldn't assume that means they will side with Democrats on the amendment.