Senate Dem leaders float plan for forced filibuster

Senate Democrats might force Republicans to wage a filibuster if the GOP wants to block the latest Iraq withdrawal bill, aides and senators said Tuesday.

That could set the stage for a dramatic end-of-the-year partisan showdown, which Democrats hope will help them turn voter frustration with Congress and the stalemate over Iraq into anger with the Republican Party.

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Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (Ill.), the number two Democrat in the chamber, said a forced filibuster is “possible” and would “generate attention.”

“We want to go to the bill, and [Republicans] have to decide initially whether they want us to go to the bill,” Durbin said. “I wouldn’t call it theatrics.”

Senate Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), the co-author of the bill that failed after last summer’s all-night Iraq session, said Tuesday that allowing Republicans to carry out a threatened filibuster is a strategy that Democratic leaders have discussed with him. But he declined to comment further.

“I’d rather that statement come from the leadership,” Levin told The Hill.

Jim Manley, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), declined to comment.

The House is expected to take up the bill as soon as Wednesday, and the Senate will likely act later this week.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) last week suggested the Senate filibuster fight as an incentive for reluctant liberal House members to vote for her Iraq plan. Her offer came after she attended a meeting of the Progressive Caucus last Thursday to woo votes on the Iraq plan.

Some of the members complained that setting a goal for complete withdrawal, instead of a “date certain,” is too timid. Pelosi told them the endgame was the Senate, according to one meeting participant. A date certain would have a hard time winning a majority support in the Senate, while a goal could attract additional wayward Republicans, she reportedly said. Neither option, however, would attract the necessary 60 votes in the Senate, setting the stage for a filibuster.

 “Some light bulbs went off over some heads,” the meeting attendee said.

When a senator threatens a filibuster, the Senate can attempt to invoke cloture to end debate on a bill, which requires 60 votes. And if the cloture vote fails, the bill is usually pulled from the floor.

On their latest Iraq plan, Democrats lack the 60 votes needed to cut off debate. Instead, they are considering making Republicans carry out a filibuster to highlight that it is the GOP preventing an unpopular president from changing course in Iraq.

Such a plan resembles the all-night debate — when cots were wheeled out — leading up to the July 18 vote to cut off a filibuster on an amendment by Levin and Sen. Jack Reed (D-R.I.) to require troops to return from Iraq in nine months. Republicans dismissed the move as theatrics.

Since then, the Levin-Reed language has been softened to include a 12-month goal, rather than a mandate, for withdrawing troops in Iraq. The measure, which is part of a $50 billion interim “bridge” fund for Iraq war operations, would also ban tactics such as water-boarding by setting into law the Army Field Manual, which does not allow for brutal interrogation tactics.

House leaders have been pressing Reid to intensify the fight with Republicans by forcing them to filibuster major bills rather than holding failed cloture votes and criticizing the GOP after bills are pulled from the floor.

 That fissure broke into the open last week when House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) acknowledged asking Reid to stage more filibusters.

“That is the only way you can give Americans a clear view of who is obstructing change,” Hoyer said.

Reid said Tuesday that if the bridge fund does not pass, the Pentagon can start paying for the war out of its regular appropriation. That $459 billion spending bill passed last week and was signed into law Tuesday. If that’s seen as not supporting the troops, voters should blame Republicans and President Bush, not congressional Democrats, he said.

“If they don’t [agree to restrictions], it’s not us taking away the bridge fund, it’s them taking away the bridge fund,” said Reid, who met with Hoyer Tuesday morning and spoke with Pelosi last Friday.

A filibuster on the floor would help the Democrats highlight Reid’s argument, supporters of the strategy say.

But Senate Republicans said Tuesday they believed the strategy would backfire. They warned they would use their floor time to argue that the Democratic-controlled Congress has wasted time on frivolous votes and failed to produce substantive legislation.

“Republicans, I think, would not at all be unwilling to talk about the necessity of supporting the troops by giving them the funding necessary to carry out their mission,” said Sen. Jon Kyl (Ariz.), the chairman of the Senate Republican Conference. “If Democrats are going to force us to talk about that, I think they’ll find a very willing partner in talking about it.”

“I think that’s a strategy that’s going to backfire on our Democratic colleagues because the surge has clearly worked,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.), who sits on the Armed Services Committee, referring to the troop buildup Bush announced in January. “You’d have to suspend disbelief to believe it hasn’t worked.”

Striking a similar note, the White House would almost certainly ratchet up attacks if Congress does not send a bridge fund to the president’s desk.

“The president has made it clear that strategic decisions should be left to our military commanders,” said Sean Kevelighan, a spokesman for the White House budget office. “Congress should stop playing politics with funding for our troops on the field in harm’s way.”

Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), who is up for re-election next year, said Tuesday that “for the umpteenth time that matters that have any level of controversy about them in the Senate will require 60 votes.”

McConnell said he plans to use a procedural maneuver to allow the “clean” bridge fund — without any withdrawal language — to move to the floor by week’s end.