Senate Dems to try again on the 'surge'

As Senate Democrats seek votes on capping troop numbers and funding for Iraq, they may use the pending bill on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission as a vehicle. That would set up a replay of the debate over funding for troops that this week derailed their leadership-backed non-binding resolution on President Bush’s “surge” proposal.

As Senate Democrats seek votes on capping troop numbers and funding for Iraq, they may use the pending bill on the recommendations of the 9/11 Commission as a vehicle. That would set up a replay of the debate over funding for troops that this week derailed their leadership-backed non-binding resolution on President Bush’s “surge” proposal.

Despite the minority’s decision to block the start of an Iraq debate, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) has vowed to put Republicans on record on the “surge” plan, which has opened GOP fissures over President Bush’s unpopular war policy. But any up-or-down vote on the binding restraints backed by the Democrats’ more vocal war critics would expose equally potent tensions in their own caucus.

Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.) said yesterday that the 9/11 Commission bill, slated for floor debate after the continuing resolution that is next up for the Senate, is a “good opportunity” to bring up his proposal for a binding funding cutoff for future deployments to Iraq.

Feingold said he and Sen. Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), the only other Democrat who indicated he would oppose the Reid-backed non-binding resolution, are amassing consensus among anti-war lawmakers: “We’re working very closely together with a number of senators who think we are not going far enough.”

Reid told colleagues on the floor after Monday evening’s failed cloture vote that the 9/11 bill, which House Democratic leaders trumpeted in their “100 Hours” agenda, will be open to war-related amendments. Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), who unveiled his own binding troop proposal yesterday, said yesterday that the 9/11 Commission bill is his preference.

“It’s very possible” that binding limits on the war could hitch a ride on the new aviation and port security funding in the 9/11 measure, according to Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.), chief sponsor of a troop-ceiling bill that currently sits on the Senate calendar.

“The leader has said we can amend the 9/11 bill,” Sen. Jim Webb (D-Va.) said. “I have one [related to Iraq] I’m thinking about.”

If the Senate indeed takes up the continuing resolution before it must pass by Feb. 15, Democratic backers of binding limits could see their moment come just after this month’s recess. Reid has hinted he will file for cloture on the continuing resolution as soon as today. Meanwhile, the House is looking to finish its debate on a non-binding disapproval of the troop increase even before the recess, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) said yesterday.

Debating binding troop caps and funding limits, however, could play into the hands of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and his conference. Republicans continued yesterday to pursue an alternative amendment from Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). It is aimed at redefining the Iraq debate as whether to fund an ongoing troop presence rather than whether senators support Bush’s handling of the war.

“If one of these resolutions actually passed that say [troops should] withdraw by March 31, [2008], do you know what it would take?” asked Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (Texas), Republican Policy Committee chairwoman. “A surge … to protect them as they withdrew.”

That March 2008 date has been proposed by Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.), whose own troop-redeployment bill picked up a House counterpart yesterday. Rep. Mike Thompson (D-Calif.), a Vietnam veteran, and freshman Rep. Patrick Murphy (D-Pa.), a veteran of the current Iraq war, introduced the companion measure.

Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), Vice Chairman of the GOP Conference, wondered why Democrats would resist Republicans’ desire to debate war funding this week when similar calls could come from within the majority’s ranks during the 9/11 Commission debate.

“The question is, why has [Reid] denied us the opportunity to have that vote now?” Cornyn said. “It’s certainly inconsistent.”

Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), an original sponsor of a non-binding resolution with stronger language than the measure Reid ultimately backed, voted with her leadership against starting debate, out of what she described as a desire for open amendments from both sides of the aisle.

Snowe acknowledged that the Democrats’ non-binding approach was intended to win over influential GOP centrists like herself but said attempting to limit amendments “taints the whole approach.”

Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.), a supporter of Kennedy’s troop-cap proposal, said he is unconcerned about any possible  risk to his state in delaying the 9/11 Commission bill by linking it to the Iraq debate.

“Iraq is overarching over all of our issues,” Menendez said. “So, the 9/11 bill, [much] of which has expenditures attached, is being undermined by Iraq.”

Asked whether Democrats would open themselves to Republican criticism by choosing the popular 9/11 Commission bill as a forum to rein in the war, Feingold echoed Menendez’s assessment.

“They can try, but the fact is, Iraq is sapping our national security, so the two are linked,” he said.

Meanwhile, MoveOn.org will begin airing new TV spots today in the states of eight senators who voted against opening debate on the non-binding Iraq resolution in a bid to amplify voters’ frustration. Sen. Norm Coleman (R-Minn.) is not a target of the latest anti-surge ad push, having voted with Democrats late Monday, but he said such efforts have little effect on his vote.

“MoveOn.org can put 1,000 things in front of me,” Coleman said. “That’s not going to move me.”