Senate Dems’ all-nighter conveys renewed push to end the Iraq war

The all-night Iraq debate the Senate entered into yesterday marks the beginning of a concerted effort by Democrats to recast months of criticism for failing to force a change in the war as the fault of Republicans siding with President Bush.

Democrats acknowledge that the all-nighter is unlikely to affect the expected failure of today’s vote to shut down debate over a bipartisan amendment calling for most troops to leave Iraq by next April. But they are mindful of the backlash they received from their base earlier this year after sending Bush a spending bill that did not include timelines for troop withdrawals.

Now, Democrats say, they want to convey to the public and their anti-war base that they are being as aggressive as possible, starting with the unusual debate that Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidNevada congressman admits to affair after relationship divulged on podcast Overnight Energy: 600K clean energy jobs lost during pandemic, report finds | Democrats target diseases spread by wildlife | Energy Dept. to buy 1M barrels of oil Bottom line MORE (D-Nev.) opened yesterday and will close tonight. Republicans dismissed the move as a “publicity stunt,” but Democrats say the heightened media attention to the overnight debate will energize voters who have been critical of the 110th Congress’s performance.

Sen. Claire McCaskillClaire Conner McCaskillSenate faces protracted floor fight over judges amid pandemic safety concerns Amash on eyeing presidential bid: 'Millions of Americans' want someone other than Trump, Biden Senators poke fun at Warner over tuna melt: 'I think you're doing it wrong' MORE, a freshman Democrat from Missouri who rode an anti-war platform into office, said Republicans have “figured out that their success is our failure” to pass legislation.  

“We need to out them, and this is the first step in effectively outing the Republican strategy,” McCaskill said of the overnight Iraq debate. “I’m frustrated because I think we have not demonstrated to those who elected us that we are doing everything that we can to move President Bush from his stubborn position of denial about the failure of this policy.”

After today’s vote and the Senate’s completion of its work on the defense authorization bill, the chamber once again will take up the Iraq debate in September when Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, reports to Congress on the status of the war. And Democrats again will look to portray Republicans as blocking action on the issue if they are still short of the necessary votes.

“There really is not much Democrats can do, but the question is, ‘Do Democrats get brownie points?’” a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, Sarah Binder, said.

The all-night debate is hardly unprecedented. It is the 31st time since 1915 such an event has been held in the Senate, according to the chamber’s historian, Richard Baker.

“In the past, they have been employed to put pressure on members to move legislation and to not move legislation,” Baker said. “It’s a tactic to either slow down the consideration of the bills or to break the opposition.”

The essence of this week’s debate boils down to a dispute over process: Democrats say they should be allowed to hold a simple-majority, up-or-down vote on the withdrawal amendment, while Republicans say the measure should clear a super-majority of 60 senators.

Sen. Carl LevinCarl Milton LevinSenator Tom Coburn's government oversight legacy The Trumpification of the federal courts Global health is the last bastion of bipartisan foreign policy MORE, D-Mich., chairman of the Armed Services Committee and a co-sponsor with Rhode Island Democrat Jack ReedJohn (Jack) Francis ReedOvernight Defense: Trump to withdraw US from Open Skies Treaty | Pentagon drops ban on recruits who had virus | FBI says Corpus Christi shooting terror-related Trump to withdraw from Open Skies Treaty On The Money: Powell, Mnuchin split on benefits of easing COVID-19 restrictions | Warren, Mnuchin spar over Treasury's 0B bailout fund | Fight emerges over unemployment benefits in next relief bill MORE of the amendment, said the dispute “is lost on much of the public because it is a procedural kind of issue” and said the all-night debate will help “clarify to the people” that Republicans are blocking an up-or-down vote.

The fight mirrors a 2003 dispute when Republicans controlled the Senate. Then-Majority Leader Bill Frist (R-Tenn.), frustrated that the Democrats would not allow an up-or-down vote on judicial nominees, held what is now dubbed a “reverse filibuster filibuster,” by debating the issue for 53 consecutive hours. Supporters of the effort said it was a success, helping to generate national media coverage and enormous enthusiasm from the conservative base that helped remove several prominent Democrats from office, including then-Minority Leader Tom Daschle (S.D.)

“It was part of an overall messaging effort that worked for us and it energized our base,” a former Frist leadership aide said.

The aide said the Iraq issue is different than 2003 because Republicans have offered to hold a vote with a 60-vote threshold, whereas four years ago Democrats objected to moving toward an up-or-down vote on judicial nominees.

Still, strategists for both parties note that the effort already may be bringing some success to the Democrats by boosting the base. Anti-war activists are planning an aggressive month of August, aiming to cast a negative spotlight on senators opposing plans to curtail the length of the war.

A spokeswoman for Americans Against Escalation in Iraq, Moira Mack, said the all-night debate has buoyed anti-war activists who were holding rallies across the country last night.

“The senators who are going to get the backlash are the senators who continue to obstruct the end to the war because the Democratic leadership is clearly pushing timelines,” Mack said.

Her group, along with, Reid and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) were set to hold a rally last night calling on Republicans to back the amendment.

Republicans said the rally highlights that yesterday’s events — including the toting of cots into the Senate for the all-night session — were simple theatrics.

“This is about, and satisfying them that they are fighting the good fight,” said Sen. John ThuneJohn Randolph ThuneGOP faces internal conflicts on fifth coronavirus bill On The Money: Jobless rate exceeds 20 percent in three states | Senate goes on break without passing small business loan fix | Biden pledges to not raise taxes on those making under 0K Senate leaves for break without passing Paycheck Protection Program fix MORE, the South Dakota Republican who defeated Daschle in 2004 by portraying him as an “obstructionist.”

Another anti-war activist, John Isaacs with a Council for a Livable World, acknowledged that the all-nighter was a “gimmick,” but said it shows that Republicans were continuing to block an end to the war. He added: “The anti-war activists will be unhappy all over again when no amendment to end the war wins 60 votes.”

Democrats know they will have to continue to translate their efforts to the public.

“We should try every way to convey to the American public how hard we are trying,” McCaskill said.