Tuesday, July 17, 2007

Senate Raises Stakes With Iraq Deadline Vote

With public opinion plummeting (for Congress and the President) and the one of the deadliest civilian attacks in the history of this Iraq war (160 dead in Turkomen, a Shiite village), Senate Majority Leader Harry Reed (D-NV) may have reached his breaking point. He has declared that on Tuesday the Senate will see an all-night session unless Republicans agree to vote on the Levin-Reed amendment, which would set a deadline for withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

In a floor speech Monday, Reed said (tip):

If Republicans do not allow a vote on Levin-Reed today or tomorrow, we will work straight through the night on Tuesday. The American people deserve an open and honest debate on this war, and they deserve an up-or-down vote on this amendment to end it...

Those of us who are ready to end the war will make our case to the American people. Those who support the status quo are welcome to equal floor time to make their case. Let the American people hear the arguments. Let them see their elected representatives engaging in a full, open and honest debate. Let them hear why Republicans are obstructing us on this amendment.

Reed is taking a page from the playbook of former Senate Majority Leader Robert Byrd (D-W.Va). In the '80s, Byrd called all-night sessions of the Senate when the issue on the floor was campaign finance reform. (The move was unsuccessful; Republicans held the filibuster.) This time, Reed is basically going to make Democrats talk all night and force Republicans to either stay in the chamber or return periodically with calls for a quorum.

When Republicans controlled the Senate, they chastised Democrats for threatening a filibuster, calling them the party of obstruction. In the 109th Congress, there were 68 motions for cloture (that's January 2005 - December 2006). In the first six months of the 110th Congress, there have already been 47 motions for cloture; at this rate, this Congress will set a record for the number of cloture motions filed.

Will Reed's move be good political theatre? Will it be more than a symbolic gesture: in other words, will the final vote mirror that of others 40 (or so) Republicans and Sen. Lieberman (I-CT) opposed?

Quick Backstory
Democrats and Republicans in the US Senate have introduced several amendments relating to the war in Iraq as part of deliberations on the defense appropriations bill, S 1547, the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2008.

The House version of the bill includes a timetable (1 April 2008) for withdrawal. The Levin-Reed Amendment calls for troops to begin withdrawal 120 days after passage and for the US to have only a "limited presence" in Iraq by 30 April 2008.

Republicans had a counter proposal. Sen. John Warner (R-VA) and Sen. Richard Luger (R-IN) proposed that President Bush present a plan by 16 October 2007 that transitions US troops to a limited role: protecting Iraqi borders, targeting terrorists, protecting U.S. assets and training Iraqi forces.

But President Bush opposes any Congressional intervention in the Iraq War. (Yes, that includes Warner's plan.)

President Bush says the surge is working and just wait for the September report Congress already mandated. However, this past Friday, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff said "the number of battle-ready Iraqi battalions able to fight independently has dropped from 10 to six in recent months despite an increase in U.S. training efforts."

And on Monday he said that the Joint Chiefs are "considering a range of actions, including another troop buildup." They will present a plan to the President in September.

America has been fighting in Iraq -- in a discretionary war -- longer than in World War II. Conditions -- at least by some metrics -- are worsening, and public opinion can be summed up as "enough already!"

What's Congress to do? Congress controls the purse-strings, and, although it is run by Democrats, the Senate is basically split 50-50. As long as the Republicans in the Senate side with the President, the Democrats are effectively checkmated because of a powerful tactic in the Senate: the filibuster.

What Is Filibuster
In the old days, the filibuster was used to keep a vote at bay. Those who did not want to vote would take to the floor of the Senate and talk. And talk. And talk. Strom Thurmond (D-SC) made the longest speech in the history of the Senate when he spoke 24 hours and 18 minutes, opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1957. (No, that is not a typo.)

In 1987–1988, Republicans filibustered campaign finance reform. Like the one Reed has announced for Tuesday, then Senate Majority Leader Robert C. Byrd (D-WVa) forced round-the-clock Senate sessions:

When Republicans boycotted the sessions, Byrd resurrected a little-known power that had last been wielded in 1942: he directed the Senate sergeant-at-arms to arrest absent members and bring them to the floor. In the resulting turmoil, Oregon Republican Bob Packwood was arrested, reinjured a broken finger, and was physically carried onto the Senate floor at 1:19 a.m. Democrats were still unable to break the filibuster, and the campaign finance bill was pulled from the floor after a record-setting eighth cloture vote failed to limit debate.

According to the US Senate website, the word filibuster -- derived from a Dutch word meaning "pirate" -- was first used more than 150 years ago to describe "efforts to hold the Senate floor in order to prevent action on a bill."

In 1975, the Senate reduced the number of votes needed to invoke cloture to three-fifths (60) of Senate membership. At the same time, they made the filibuster "invisible" by requiring only that 41 Senators state that they intend to filibuster; critics say this makes the modern filibuster "painless." In 1986, Senators reduced the time allowed for debate, procedural moves, and roll-call votes after the Senate had invoked cloture to end a filibuster from 100 hours to 30 hours.

Will Reed's act galvanize the citizenry? Will it move enough Republicans away from the President to reach the magic "60 votes" needed to actually have a vote?

No comments:

Search Results