Senate debates all night on Iraq withdrawal

by Jerome L Sherman, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

WASHINGTON -- With Democrats insisting on an attention-grabbing marathon to dramatize their opposition to the Iraq war, the Senate began an all-night session late yesterday that was to include a floor speech by Sen. Bob Casey.

It was the Pennsylvania Democrat's first all-nighter as a U.S. senator.

Mr. Casey and his Democratic colleagues organized the unusual nocturnal legislative session -- with cots in the Lyndon B. Johnson room -- to increase the pressure on President Bush and congressional Republicans and win more support for a troop withdrawal timeline.

"I'm an optimist about this. I think we can change the opinion of the other side. The president should understand that this is not going away," Mr. Casey said yesterday. "We're going to keep coming at him with votes and measures and any strategy we can develop."

Yet this strategy, like many before it, is unlikely to achieve the immediate results sought by war opponents. The Senate today will consider an amendment, proposed by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jack Reed, D-R.I., that would set 120-day period to begin pulling U.S. troops from Iraq. But it must first meet a 60-vote threshold to avoid a filibuster, or continued debate -- a formidable obstacle in the narrowly divided legislative body, even with some Republican defections in recent weeks.

"The Democrats, unfortunately, are trying to undermine the efforts of our troops and restrict the ability of our generals to carry out their missions," Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said. He called the overnight session "bad theater."

Iraq has dominated the first six months of the 110th Congress, and the issue will heat up even more this fall, when lawmakers consider new funding packages for the war and Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander, delivers a progress report on the president's decision to commit more than 20,000 additional combat troops.

"It's only going to intensify," said Julian E. Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University who studies Congress. "Most legislators aren't thinking about much other than their position on Iraq. It's hard to get much else done."

The war was the issue in last year's election that helped Democrats like Mr. Casey defeat GOP incumbents across the country. He accused his opponent, former Sen. Rick Santorum, of failing to question the Bush administration's handling of the conflict.

Since coming to power, the Democrats have taken incremental steps in changing the nation's policy. In May, President Bush vetoed an emergency spending bill that contained a non-binding withdrawal timeline. Congress then sent the president a bill without a timeline, deeply angering anti-war Democrats.

Despite his newcomer status in a body that rewards seniority, Mr. Casey has tried to move the debate. As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he was involved in early discussions on a measure condemning the president's troop surge. He was a sponsor of a troop withdrawal timeline put forward by Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Mr. Casey has spoken out in favor of the guidelines of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group.

In a floor speech last week, Mr. Casey read the names of 169 Pennsylvanians who have died in the war.

Mr. Casey acknowledged in an interview yesterday that the pace of change was slow. He defended Mr. Reid's decision to invest considerable legislative time to the war, saying the Democrats had also won key domestic victories, such as an increase in the minimum wage from $5.15 an hour to $7.25 an hour.

Other issues, however, are moving slowly, including energy legislation and proposals to make college more affordable.

Longtime senators are accustomed to the pace.

"It's very frustrating," said Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, the Democratic presidential nominee in 2004 who voted to authorize the war in 2002 but has become one of its most vocal critics. "But that's the legislative process. It's about changing people's minds. It takes time."

Most Democrats appear ready to support the timeline proposed by Mr. Reed and Mr. Levin, who also want to leave behind an undetermined number of U.S. troops to train Iraqi security forces and fight insurgents. At least three Republicans -- Gordon Smith of Oregon, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Olympia Snowe of Maine -- have voiced support.

"Every single day, while we're here in the conduct of our business in the Senate in Washington, young Americans are suiting up, arming, and going out on missions," Mr. Kerry said. "They're putting their lives on the line in the middle of a civil war where there is no political solution in sight and where no military solution is possible. That's an equation for failure."

Yesterday, veterans of fighting in Iraq and Afghanistan were in Washington to give their views on both sides of the debate.

"These guys represent thousands of veterans who are deeply troubled by the defeatist sentiment on Capitol Hill," said Pete Hegseth, executive director of Vets for Freedom, as he stood with a dozen other veterans and Mr. McConnell, the Senate Republican leader.

Members of VoteVets.org, a left-leaning group that calls for an end to the war, lobbied wavering Republicans, including Sen. George Voinovich of Ohio.

The Senate's last overnight session came in 2003, during a debate on a judicial nominee.

Mr. Casey said he was prepared for a long evening.

"I'll sleep wherever there's room," he said. "It's a small measure of commitment when our troops and their families have been suffering over many months."