For the past week or so, trying to figure out what Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is going to do next on the Iraq debate has been harder than predicting a hummingbird's flight plan. Today's story is that he has given up on extending a hand across the aisle to Republicans, and will now bring up only bills with hard deadlines. "It's all definite timelines," Reid is quoted as saying. Or maybe it's that he's going to delay the debate until November. Time will tell, I guess. It should properly be seen as all rumor, speculation, and backroom deals -- until we get to an actual floor debate.
The strongest contender of a bill from Democrats was originally proposed in the House by Representative Jack Murtha quite a while ago, and is now known as the "Webb amendment" in the Senate (for Senator Jim Webb). It mandates the same amount of recuperation time at home for soldiers who have spent that time in Iraq; and would likely put the Pentagon (and President Bush) in a bind -- effectively forcing them to remove troops from Iraq faster than they are planning. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates recently came out against the idea, but Democrats are working on the language (in one of those backrooms) in an attempt to mollify Gates.
Of course, John McCain has predictably gone ballistic on the issue (he is, after all, running for president). But his strawman argument on the issue needs to be shot down immediately by Democrats. He is currently loudly proclaiming (to any media who will still listen) that the Webb amendment is "unconstitutional" and is "micromanaging" the Pentagon. I don't know what copy of the Constitution he's reading from, but whenever Republicans brandish the phrase: "the President is Commander-in-Chief, I know this because the Constitution tells me so;" Democrats need to quickly and forcefully refute it with the following:
Article 1, Section 8 of the Constitution enumerates the powers given to Congress. Allow me to quote from this first article of our Constitution:
"The Congress shall have power to ... declare war, grant letters of marque and reprisal, and make rules concerning captures on land and water; To raise and support armies, but no appropriation of money to that use shall be for a longer term than two years; To provide and maintain a navy; To make rules for the government and regulation of the land and naval forces...."
Now doesn't that sound to you like the Founding Fathers intended the Congress -- and not the President -- to have the power over our military not just to define the rules of battle engagement, but also to "make rules for the government and regulation" of the military? It's right there in plain English, and I suggest that Senator McCain needs to brush up on his Constitution -- because he is just flat wrong on this issue. What he calls "micromanagement," I call instead: "our sacred Constitutional duty in Congress."
I'd personally love to hear Senator Webb say that in front of a television camera. With feeling. Or perhaps even Senator Jack Reed from Rhode Island, since he did such a decent job of the Democratic response to Bush's speech last week.
McCain's histrionics aside, however, there are a lot of very nervous Republicans in Congress these days -- Petraeus report or no Petraeus report. Moderate Republicans (yes, they still do exist, but they are a seriously endangered species, it should be noted) have no good options, at this point. They can double-down on a bad bet (the "surge" is going to make everything wonderful by election day next year) by continuing to vote the way Bush wants them to. Or they can face the reality that they're just not going to get re-elected that way, and start voting with the Democrats. And Iraq's just the biggest of their problems, as Bush is girding his loins for an epic veto showdown on just about every budget bill Congress is about to pass (some of which contain ideas extremely popular with the voting public, like more health insurance for children).
This opens up a giant wedge for Democrats to divide and conquer among the GOP, primarily centered in two geographic regions which used to be bastions of support for "fiscally conservative, socially liberal/libertarian" Republicans (i.e., the Northeast and the West). These sensible moderates are essentially being driven out of their own Republican Party. And they face serious challenges from Democrats in almost every state they're running in. Which means they're not just nervous, they're absolutely petrified about their prospects in next year's election.
Republican Representative Jim Ramstad of Minnesota sums it up best: "We are at a very significant juncture. I'd use a metaphor, but it can't be printed -- something about something hitting the fan."
[Editorial note: Now, see, Jim, if you had given me that quote, I could have printed it uncensored on the web! I mean, I'm just saying....]
Ahem. Where was I?
Speaking of hilarious quotes from that Washington Post article, here's a knee-slapping whopper from GOP Representative Mike Pence from Indiana: "To be candid, Republicans think less in terms of fealty to the president than loyalty to principle."
Hoo boy. What has he been smoking? Congressional Republicans don't vote in lockstep with Bush? That's news to me....
And this doesn't even touch upon the Republicans' slow suicide pact of proving (without a shadow of a doubt) that Kanye West was right, and they just don't care about minorities. This may doom the GOP to an entire generation in the wilderness of the minority, until someone strong-willed enough can cause a course-correction within the party. You have to remember that immigrants don't come from an American cultural background -- which means they have attention spans longer than the average hyperactive two-year old. They remember things.
Just ask former California governor Pete Wilson -- he did win an election by immigrant-bashing, to be sure. But California has been a solidly Democratic state ever since (except for Governator Schwarzenegger -- whom we all consider an aberration in more ways than one); and California will continue to be reliably "blue" in national politics for the foreseeable future. The moral of this story is: Scoring cheap political points by scapegoating immigrants may work in the short term, but it is absolutely poisonously fatal for your party in the long run.
But back to the immediate future, and the upcoming Iraq votes in the Senate. We start with several numbers: 49-2-49 and 56-41. The first is either a woman with an extremely skinny waist, or it refers to the current makeup of the Senate. There are 49 Democrats, 1 Independent, 1 Whatever-The-Heck-Lieberman's-Calling-Himself-This-Week, and 49 Republicans in the Senate. This is an improvement by one vote for the Democrats -- because South Dakota's Senator Tim Johnson is now healthily back and serving in the Senate once again (he has now recovered from his cranial operation -- welcome back, Senator Johnson!). When you parse it all out (Senator Sanders from Vermont -- the other Independent -- is a reliable Democratic vote on Iraq, and most everything else), it comes down to 50-50 on the subject of Iraq.
Quick math review: Democrats need 60 votes to move anything off the Senate floor, and onto Bush's desk. And 67 votes to overturn the expected veto.
But for now, on to that second number I cited above. Predicting things on the Webb amendment is actually pretty easy, since this is the measure that got the highest number of votes last spring in the Senate during the Iraq debates. The vote then was 56-41. This meant the Democrats "lost" since they didn't have the 60 votes to move it past a Republican filibuster, but it is still the highest vote total the Democrats got on any legislation to end the Iraq war (so far) this year. The following Republicans voted with the Democrats: Olympia Snowe (ME), Susan Collins (ME), Gordon Smith (OR), John Warner (VA), Chuck Hagel (NE), Norm Coleman (MN), and John Sununu (NH). Strangely enough, six out of seven of those are up for re-election next year (perhaps ol' Norm's getting nervous about Al Franken's candidacy?).
In the "good news" department -- South Dakota Senator Tim Johnson is now back in action. That gives Democrats another solid vote on Iraq. Which means they only need pick up three more, in order to put something on Bush's desk. OK, it still will need seven more votes after that to overturn a veto -- but hey, one step at a time.
There are four names being floated as candidates for further GOP aisle-crossing on Iraq. These are (to date): Lamar Alexander from Tennessee, George Voinovich from Ohio, Lisa Murkowski from Alaska, and (a surprise to me) Elizabeth Dole from North Carolina.
I strongly urge anyone who lives in these four states (who also wants to end the Iraq war) to contact your senator today and let them know they have constituents who will support their actions if they vote with the Democrats.
I also have three long-shot names who might conceivably be convinced to do so as well. They are: Robert Bennett from Utah, Judd Gregg from New Hampshire, and Pete Domenici from New Mexico. I entreat any anti-war people living in those states to also contact your senator -- right now! -- and let them know how you feel.
Out of those seven, Democrats only need three more cross-aisle votes to put the issue on Bush's desk. To override his veto, we'd need each and every one of them, plus three more -- a seeming impossibility at this point. But if Elizabeth Dole can change her mind, perhaps other Republicans can also be convinced. Especially after they've done some polling on the issue in their state.
We've got nothing left to lose at this point. Except pointless more American military lives sacrificed to "the Bush legacy." And that would be a shame indeed.
Chris Weigant blogs at: ChrisWeigant.com