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GOP THWARTS DEBATE ON WAR IN THE SENATE

Times Staff Writer

The most serious congressional challenge to President Bush’s Iraq war strategy stalled Monday when Senate Republicans blocked consideration of a resolution criticizing his plan to boost troop levels.

Leaders from both parties continued to work on a compromise that would allow Senate Democrats to bring the resolution up again. But the GOP gambit dealt a setback to the nascent campaign to take on the Bush administration’s management of the war. It also may mean that leadership in challenging Bush may shift to House Democrats.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other senior House lawmakers have said they may bring up their own resolution opposing the White House’s latest war plan as soon as next week.

Senate Republicans, meanwhile, could be taking a major political risk in casting themselves as the barrier to a war debate that American voters have indicated they want Congress to engage in, according to political observers.

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“We are witness to the spectacle of a White House and Republican senators unwilling to even engage in a debate on a war that claims at least one American life every day,” said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) in one of a series of impassioned floor speeches by lawmakers from both parties.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky guided a nearly unified GOP caucus in opposition to a procedural vote to allow formal debate on the Iraq resolution.

Needing 60 votes to overcome the GOP blockade, Democrats -- who cling to a narrow majority in the Senate -- could muster only 50. The final vote was 49 to 47, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) voted no in a move that allows him to bring the issue back up. Vermont independent Bernard Sanders voted yes.

McConnell accused the Democratic majority of blocking consideration of Republican alternatives to the resolution. “We are, in effect, being denied a fair process for this extremely important debate,” he said.

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But Democratic leaders were quick Monday to tag their GOP opponents as stooges for a White House that has been desperately trying to avoid an embarrassing rebuke from Capitol Hill.

The Democratic leaders had, until Monday, promoted their work with a handful of GOP lawmakers critical of the president’s war plan. And support had appeared to be building for a nonbinding measure sponsored by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) that says the Senate “disagrees” with the planned troop increase.

Crafted to attract support from Democrats and Republicans, the carefully worded resolution avoids the confrontational language often used by Democratic lawmakers who have attacked the White House.

The president already has started to increase the troop level by 21,500 from the approximately 135,000 who were in Iraq when he announced his plan.

Last week, Warner and his co-authors amended the eight-page resolution to express opposition to any cut in funds for troops, which many GOP lawmakers have expressed concern about. The measure won the support of seven Republican senators, as well as a majority of Democrats.

But as its authors labored to persuade centrist Republicans to join them, GOP leaders allied with the president battled back.

Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- a leading supporter of the Bush Iraq plan -- last week proposed a resolution that backed the new Iraq strategy, although it also expressed the need for the Iraqi government to meet certain benchmarks that it has long failed to achieve.

And Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) offered a short resolution opposing any funding limits for American troops in the field.

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Reid said Monday that Democrats were willing to consider all three, as long as each resolution only required a simple majority to pass. Such an agreement would almost guarantee that the Warner measure criticizing the Bush plan would pass, dealing a major defeat to the White House.

McConnell countered that all three should require 60 votes, an arrangement that would have increased the likelihood that only the Gregg measure -- the least controversial of the three -- would pass. The Republican leader and his lieutenants argued that the 60-vote threshold was customary for a controversial issue.

“It is the ordinary, not the extraordinary,” McConnell said. The Senate’s rules give the minority party the ability to filibuster legislation, a move that requires 60 votes to overcome.

Other opponents of the Warner measure made no secret of their distaste with the direction he and other Iraq war critics want to take the Senate.

“I don’t think we should formalize our concerns,” Gregg said Monday, arguing that it is not the role of Congress to challenge a president’s role as commander in chief during wartime.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a former Democrat who still caucuses with the party but is backing the Bush Iraq strategy, urged his colleagues to forgo the Warner measure. “This resolution is not about Congress taking responsibility. It is the opposite. This is a resolution of irresolution,” Lieberman said, warning that it would “discourage our troops.”

The remark prompted a quick response from Warner, a former Marine who also has served as Navy secretary and chairman of the Armed Services Committee, that his resolution “is in support of the troops.”

Sen. Carl Levin (D-Mich.), chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a co-sponsor of Warner’s measure, also bristled at the notion that the resolution would undermine the war effort. “It is an insult to the intelligence of our troops to suggest that somehow or other debating the wisdom of deepening the military presence in Iraq somehow or other emboldens the enemy,” he said.

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In the end, Republicans -- including Warner and several backers of his measure -- fell in line behind their leader Monday, backing McConnell’s demand that the measure require 60 votes to pass.

Although that requirement makes it considerably more difficult for Warner’s resolution to pass, said his spokesman, John Ullyot, “It’s very rare for people not to back their leadership in a procedural vote like this.”

Warner himself expressed confidence that Senate leaders would reach an agreement to vote on the measure soon.

Only Republican Sens. Susan Collins of Maine and Norm Coleman of Minnesota -- both of whom are running for reelection in two years in states that lean Democratic -- voted with the Democrats. Lieberman, who joined with McCain to call for a troop increase, voted with the Republicans.

McCain was one of four senators who missed the vote. A spokeswoman said he was in Texas, and referred questions to his presidential campaign. A campaign spokesman did not respond to messages.

The Republican effort to cast the first vote on Iraq in the new Congress as a question of fairness was savaged by Democrats, who promised to keep bringing up the issue.

“You can run but you cannot hide,” Reid warned his Republican counterparts. “We are going to debate Iraq.”

Reid’s high-stakes showdown with the Republicans worried some Senate Democrats, but the veteran leader appeared to be counting on public opinion to remain with the Democrats.

Tony Fabrizio, a GOP pollster, warned that Republicans could be portrayed as obstructionists if they block efforts to change a policy that has lost the support of a majority of Americans.

“If the debate comes down to, ‘Either you support the Bush status quo or you want change,’ we can very well be on the wrong end of the stick,” Fabrizio said. “Given the results of November’s elections, one would think our guys would not want to be seen as status quo.”

Within hours of the vote, Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean issued an attack on the GOP: “Why are the president’s supporters in Congress afraid to have to stand up and tell the American people where they stand on the president’s efforts to escalate the war?”

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noam.levey@latimes.com

Times staff writers Janet Hook and Nicole Gaouette contributed to this report.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

49 Yes

46 Democrats,

2 Republicans

(Susan Collins, Maine;

Norm Coleman, Minn.)

1 independent

(Bernard Sanders, Vt.)

47 No

45 Republicans,

1 Democrat

(Harry Reid, Nev.)

1 independent

(Joe Lieberman, Conn.)

4 Nonvoters

2 Democrats

(Mary L. Landrieu, La.;

Tim Johnson, S.D.)

2 Republicans

(Mel Martinez, Fla.);

John McCain, Ariz.)


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