The Washington Post reports that Senate Republicans, led by Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, appear to have retreated from defending the White House on the supplemental funding bill for the Iraq war. The decision to forego a cloture battle gets analyzed as am increasingly unhappy GOP caucus forcing Bush to fight the battle on mandatory timetables alone:
Unwilling to do the White House's heavy lifting on Iraq, Senate Republicans are prepared to step aside to allow language requiring troop withdrawals to reach President Bush, forcing him to face down Democratic adversaries with his veto pen.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.) announced the shift in strategy yesterday, as the chamber took up a $122 billion war spending package that includes a target date of March 31, 2008, for ending most U.S. combat operations in Iraq. The provision, along with a similar House effort, represents the Democrats' boldest challenge on the war, setting the stage for a dramatic showdown with Bush over an otherwise popular bill to keep vital military funds flowing.
Republicans will still attempt to remove the deadline in a Senate vote expected as soon as today, and GOP leaders were reasonably confident they would muster a majority. But the margin is expected to be thin, requiring the presence of Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who had skipped several previous Iraq votes to attend presidential campaign events. McCain canceled a series of fundraisers and meetings in Florida to return to Washington, telling a conservative radio program that he wanted to "beat back this recipe for defeat that the Democrats are trying to foist off on the American people."
No matter the outcome of the Senate vote, McConnell is looking ahead, assuming House Democrats will insist that withdrawal conditions be included when a final bill is sent to Bush. If so, McConnell said, Republicans would forgo the parliamentary tactics they used to block antiwar legislation that had forced Democrats to amass an insurmountable 60 votes to prevail.
As Inigo Montoya said in The Princess Bride, "I do not think it means what you think it means." Shailagh Murray and Jonathan Weisman leave two key items out of their analysis, which makes it clear that McConnell's strategy has little to do with capitulation to the Democrats.
First, time is an issue. A filibuster of the bill would undoubtedly stop it from passing, but that will eat up a lot of time -- and the funding of the troops runs out on April 15th. A spending bill has to get passed before then in order to ensure continuity of funding, including salaries, benefits, and so on. The Senate has to try to rewrite the bill so that it has no mandatory timetables for withdrawal, which Bush has made clear he will veto.
Second, the Republicans believe that they can prevail against the House version of the supplemental. Rather than go through the obstructionism of a filibuster, they would much rather beat the bill in a roll-call vote, if necessary. Thad Cochran and John Warner have worked on another version of the bill which would require more reporting from the White House on benchmarks, but would not use them to trigger mandatory withdrawal from Iraq. That has apparently convinced Ben Nelson (D-NE) to support the alternative -- which would also assuredly get Joe Lieberman's vote.
The key will be the conference committee, if McConnell can get the alternative passed instead of the House version. The troops will still need funding very quickly, and the Democrats may use that leverage to push for more restrictive language than Bush will accept. Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid will control the composition of that panel, and we can expect to see Chuck Hagel, Olympia Snowe, and/or Susan Collins as part of the Republican contingent. McConnell will allow a bad result to get vetoed at that point, not because he wants to give up the debate, but because Congress has to put that bill behind them in order to quickly work on another supplemental.
McConnell has a much more robust strategy than simply waiting for a presidential veto. The Post underestimates his strategy on this bill.