What: All Issues : Making Government Work for Everyone, Not Just the Rich or Powerful : Curbing Presidential Power : S. 470 Expressing the sense of the Congress on Iraq/Motion to invoke cloture (2007 senate Roll Call 44)
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S. 470 Expressing the sense of the Congress on Iraq/Motion to invoke cloture
senate Roll Call 44     Feb 05, 2007
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The simple way to explain what happened in this vote is that Senate Republicans successfully prevented debate on a nonbinding, bipartisan resolution that opposed President Bush's plan to increase the number of troops in Iraq. The somewhat more complicated explanation is that Republicans in the Senate prevented Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) from getting to decide which resolution was debated. A sense of the Senate resolution is nonbinding legislation that simply offers the opinion of the body but does not make law. Although often purely symbolic in nature, such a resolution can also indicate which way the Senate is likely to head on other legislation. Since President Bush stated his intentions to send 21,500 additional troops to Iraq, there had been a clear bipartisan majority in the Senate opposed to such action. But the Senate is a complex legislative body where even simple tasks often require enormous effort - a function installed by the Founders as a way to ensure legislative action was adequately deliberated -- and for those reasons and political calculations by both parties, even nonbinding legislation opposing the war escalation was unable to successfully emerge from parliamentary maneuvering. Cloture is the only procedure in the Senate that restricts the amount of time a bill may be considered. Under Senate rules, cloture requires three-fifths of the chamber, normally 60 votes. Without cloture any member can threaten to hold the chamber's agenda hostage by refusing to turn over control of the floor, an act known as a filibuster. In late January, Senate Foreign Relations Chairman Joseph Biden (D-Del.) pushed a toughly worded resolution chiding Bush's desired troop "surge" through his committee on a largely party-line vote. It was relatively clear, however, that Biden's resolution didn't have the 60 votes required to cut off debate on the floor and thus overcome the threat of filibuster, which could have prevented a vote from occurring. Trying to overcome the seeming impasse, the ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, John Warner (Va.), drew up a competing resolution that was more conciliatory but still anti-surge. It drew many Democratic supporters in the Senate. At that time, Warner indicated to Biden that he was unwilling to negotiate a compromise resolution. That left Reid the decision of whether to press Democrats who had supported Warner into joining Biden or endorse Warner's version. After minor changes to Warner's language and key support from Armed Services Chairman Carl Levin (D-Mich.), Reid chose the latter course. The Warner-Levin language drew the opposition of the White House as well as the Senate Republican leadership. Senate Republicans then started to coalesce behind a third nonbinding resolution, this one by Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.). Gregg's language didn't address the troop surge at all but simply said Congress should not "endanger" military forces in the field by cutting funding, a politically volatile topic that the Democratic caucus seemed to want to avoid, fearing that it put them in a winless situation: support the resolution and thus narrow their options or oppose it and risk being portrayed as anti-troops. Reid then decided that the chamber would only consider one other Republican-sponsored resolution besides Warner's. It was not to be Gregg's, but instead one drafted by Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), which endorsed President Bush's plan. The Warner-Levin legislation may have passed if given an up-or-down vote, and Gregg's almost certainly would have. But the Senate Republican leadership, under the direction of Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), convinced their members that they could not allow the Democratic leadership to pick which resolutions came up for a vote. Thus, when Reid motioned to invoke cloture, he only found 49 votes (including only two Republicans: Minnesota's Norm Coleman and Maine's Susan Collins), far short of the 60 votes he needed to end debate and bring the resolutions to an up-or-down vote. Interestingly, both Sen. Chuck Hagel (Neb.), an outspoken Republican opponent of Bush's surge, and Warner voted against cloture. In doing so, Warner helped prevent his own language from coming to a vote. Forty-seven Senators voted against cloture. Democratic Senators widely criticized Republicans for preventing a debate on Iraq, but the truth was more complicated and had more to do with strategy than substance. Republicans did use a threat of filibuster to keep any of the measures from coming to a vote, a threat Democrats were unable to overcome in seeking cloture, but only after Reid had made a decision to allow some versions of the nonbiding resolution to be voted on and not others. In this decision Reid was backed by the Democratic caucus, which decided it would not accept a compromise that would put both the Warner and Gregg resolutions before the chamber. Those votes would likely have been highly divisive within the Democratic caucus, splitting Democrats who were willing to go on record with a commitment to not cut funding for the war effort from those who weren't willing to make such a promise, even in nonbinding legislation. After days of floor time and countless hours of negotiating both within and between the parties, the Senate was unable to come up with a consensus on legislation on how to proceed with the war in Iraq, even though it lacked the force of law. In the face of Republican opposition, the Democrats came far short in their effort to obtain cloture and enable the chamber to move toward a final vote. The Senate thus failed to reach an agreement that would even allow a vote on a nonbinding resolution on President Bush's plan for a troop escalation in Iraq.

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