Times Staff Writer

Senate Republicans on Saturday blocked a Democratic effort to pass a symbolic resolution opposing President Bush’s troop buildup in Iraq.

Democrats, who hold a narrow majority in the Senate, fell four votes shy of the 60 needed on a procedural vote to consider the nonbinding resolution. They did pick up the support of seven Republicans -- five more than on an earlier vote on a similar measure -- suggesting they may be in a stronger position for future challenges to Bush over the war.

The 56-34 Senate vote came a day after the Democratic-controlled House rebuked the president’s war strategy after four days of often heated debate.


The rare Saturday session of the Senate lasted only about 3 1/2 hours, but was no less intense.

“The voices of the American people are growing louder and louder, and the need for us to act could not be clearer. No more delays. No more filibusters. No more excuses,” argued Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.). “This is the moment of truth. We either go on record opposing the escalation, or we go on record supporting it.”

Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) accused Republicans of trying to protect the president from an embarrassing vote. He said that he would no longer push for a vote on the nonbinding resolution but that the war would remain center stage in the Senate.

“This war is too important to permit Senate Republicans to brush it aside,” he said. “The Senate will keep fighting to force President Bush to change course.”

Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) accused Democrats of playing “stupid political games.”

“This is a low point in my time in the Senate,” he said.

The Senate was scheduled to begin a weeklong recess Saturday, but Reid kept the chamber in session, saying it was important to get senators on the record on the issue. Nine Republicans skipped the vote.

Republicans said they were prepared to debate the war, but only if Democrats would allow consideration of an alternative resolution opposing any cut in funding for the troops.

A Reid spokesman said the Democratic leader didn’t want to include the resolution opposing a cut in funding because it would be a distraction from a “yes or no vote on the escalation.” The spokesman said Reid had offered to let Republicans bring their resolution at another time.

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said: “We will not be forced to vote for a resolution that says we support the troops but does not ask us to seal that pledge with a promise to help them carry out that mission in the only way they can -- funding their mission.”

Republicans have contended that the nonbinding resolution is a prelude to Democratic efforts to withhold funding for the war. “The Senate was created to block that kind of dealing, and today it stops at the doors of this chamber,” McConnell said.

With Democrats threatening to attach strings to the president’s request for more war funding, the White House issued a statement Saturday saying that the next votes in Congress should “provide unmistakable assurance of this nation’s resolve in achieving success” in the war on terrorism.

The resolution that the Senate was considering taking up is the same one the House passed Friday. It consists of two short sentences, the first stating that “Congress and the American people will continue to support and protect” U.S. forces serving in Iraq, a phrase that Democrats hoped would undercut accusations that they were undermining the troops.

The second sentence says Congress “disapproves of the decision” Bush announced in a nationally televised speech Jan. 10 to add 21,500 troops to the 135,000-plus already in Iraq.

“The United States Senate, the greatest deliberative body in the whole world, is probably the only place” in America not debating the war, Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) said Saturday.

“This is the most pressing issue facing our nation, and it is important for the Senate to go on record on the president’s plan,” said Sen. Susan Collins (R-Maine), an opponent of the troop buildup who voted with the Democrats.

In addition to Collins, Republicans voting to debate the measure were Norm Coleman of Minnesota, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Gordon H. Smith of Oregon, Olympia J. Snowe of Maine, Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania and John W. Warner of Virginia.

Sen. Joe Lieberman, a Connecticut independent who caucuses with Democrats, joined the 33 Republicans who voted no.

Democratic senators who are running for president canceled appearances and flew back to Washington from Iowa, New Hampshire and South Carolina.

The nine Republican no-shows included Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who was campaigning for president in Iowa. They said their votes wouldn’t have affected the outcome. Sen. Tim Johnson (D-S.D.), recovering from brain surgery, also was absent.

A number of the senators were none too happy about having to rearrange their travel plans for a vote whose outcome surprised nobody. Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) assailed Democratic leaders for calling a rare Saturday session, which he said was an effort to “embarrass the 21 of us who are up for reelection” in 2008 “on a nonbinding resolution that wouldn’t accomplish anything ... just to see whether we’d come back to vote.”

But Snowe -- one of the Republicans who joined Democrats in voting to debate the resolution -- objected to the Senate taking a weeklong recess without having debated the war.

After the Senate returns from its recess, both parties are expected to try to attach war-related amendments to legislation -- including a GOP effort to press for a vote on their resolution opposing any cut in funding for the troops.

Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) introduced a resolution Saturday setting Dec. 31 as the expiration date for the 2002 congressional resolution that authorized the invasion of Iraq. It would require the president to return to Congress to extend it.

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) introduced legislation Friday to cap the level of U.S. troops in Iraq at the number before the buildup, and begin a phased redeployment of U.S. troops out of Iraq in 90 days. Her proposal also would prohibit the use of funds to send troops to Iraq “unless they have the proper equipment and training.”

Tom Matzzie, Washington director of the liberal Political Action, said Saturday that Republican senators had given Bush “a green light to escalate” the war.

Freshman Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.) lamented: “The Senate can’t seem to do anything but debate about whether or not to debate.”