All Talk and No Talk

The Senate dithers on the Iraq troop surge.

In the Senate, debates can be like rabbits: They multiply. So, before senators could debate President Bush’s plan for a troop increase in Iraq, they had to have a debate about the debate. To go forward with that debate, the senators had to debate the order of debating the debate.

After all the debate, the Senate debated nothing. The nonbinding resolution on Iraq, which would not actually stop the deployment of 21,500 or more additional troops, will not be voted on for the moment. After a day of speeches and wrangling, the Democrats and Republicans could not reach an agreement on how to proceed.

Republicans were the ones who shut down debate. All but two of them stuck with their party, leaving Democrats 11 votes short of the 60 they needed to proceed with a discussion of the troop surge on the Senate floor. At issue were the rules of the game: which resolutions—both for and against Bush’s plan for Iraq—would be debated and whether it would take 50 or 60 votes to pass them. Democrats had offered an agreement that would have opened debate on two measures: one from John Warner opposing the surge, and one from John McCain supporting it. Democrats did not want to include a third Republican measure, sponsored by New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, which said nothing about the surge in offering support for the troops.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid claimed that because the Gregg amendment had nothing to do with the surge, it was not germane. The real worry for Democrats, though, was that the greatest number of senators would have simply voted to support the troops. If that had happened, the Gregg measure could have been the only one of the three to pass. Or it could have passed by a larger margin than the Warner resolution opposing the surge, watering down the message of disapproval being sent to the President Bush. (McCain’s effort never had a chance.)

When Reid did not agree to include the Gregg amendment in the debate, Republicans refused to play ball. Even the ones opposed to the surge weren’t willing to break ranks and give a victory to Democrats on a matter of procedure. Because neither side could risk an unfavorable outcome, they embraced stalemate.

“Republicans have given President Bush a green light,” complained Reid afterward. “They’re high-fiving at the White House.” His colleagues tried to one-up each other in calling the opposition names. Dick Durbin of Illinois called Republicans “mugwumps” because they said they opposed the troop surge but didn’t vote to stop it, and Chuck Schumer called them “Know Nothings” because they were oblivious to reality.

Earlier Monday it seemed senators would find some way to behave like adults on the most important issue of the day. Senators from each side promised that the debate could start right away if the other side would just come to their senses. “This is all a bunch of show and tell … a lot of sound and fury,” said Republican Sen. Trent Lott. “Signifying nothing,” helpfully chimed in West Virginia Democrat Robert Byrd. (Byrd wasn’t joining the Republicans; he just likes finishing people’s quotes.)

The debate left some of the spectators in the gallery unimpressed. Some were able only to see the senators discuss which of them would speak before the other and for what duration. “I expected to see debate on the resolution,” said Matthew Lilleboe, a visitor from Minnesota who left the gallery before the final vote. “Disconnected is a pretty good word to explain [the debate]. There was a lot of back and forth. They need to move a little faster on it.” 

For now, that’s it. Reid says the Senate must move on to other business, a veiled threat to Republicans that the country will blame them for the nondebate debate. Reid also suggested, though, that he’d talk to his counterpart, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, on Tuesday in case it turned out that Democrats were getting blamed. The idea would be that they’re in control and yet the Republicans are controlling the conversation. Either way, debate will continue.