Senate Democrats vow all-night debate
WASHINGTON – The Senate this week will pull its first all-night debate on the Iraq war in advance of a vote on whether to bring home all combat troops by next spring, Democrats said Monday.The rare, round-the-clock session Tuesday night through Wednesday morning is intended to bait Republicans into an exhaustive debate on the politically unpopular war, as well as punish GOP members for routinely blocking anti-war legislation.”How many sleepless nights have our soldiers and their families had?” said Democratic Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill.Democrats are trying to ratchet up pressure on Republicans who have grown uneasy with the lack of progress and begun questioning President Bush’s military strategy.Republicans shrugged off the planned marathon debate as political theater. Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans “welcome further debate” but that there was no reason why the Senate couldn’t vote sooner.The political sparring came as several Republican congressional staffers met privately with Bush aides in the West Wing of the White House to hash out an effective communications strategy on the war.According to one member who attended, Bush made a brief surprise visit and thanked the staffers – spokespeople for Republican leadership on Capitol Hill – for sticking behind him. Bush told the staffers he would not rethink his Iraq policies until a critical military assessment comes in September.Bush also said he had no confidence in the ability of international institutions – a reference to the United Nations – to salvage Iraq if the U.S. were to withdraw.”He said, ‘We have to do this,”‘ the attendee said, referring to stabilizing Iraq. The attendee spoke anonymously because the meeting was intended to be private.The meeting was arranged by Ed Gillespie, a former high-dollar Washington lobbyist and longtime Republican strategist. Gillespie recently replaced Dan Bartlett as White House counselor.GOP leaders have backed Bush on the war, but have warned administration officials that keeping their members in line will be much tougher after September if substantial progress is not made.Marine Gen. Peter Pace revealed that he and the Joint Chiefs are developing their own assessment of Iraq, to be presented to Bush in September. Options include another troop buildup or maintaining current troop levels beyond September.Bush on Monday told Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials that continued U.S. support depends on political progress in Baghdad, said White House spokesman Tony Snow. In a secure video conference lasting more than an hour, Bush “encouraged efforts to build a strong unity coalition and to pass key legislation,” Snow said.Still, Snow said, “the president reaffirmed his strong support for Prime Minister Maliki.”Democrats want to pass legislation by Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., that would order combat troops to begin leaving in 120 days and complete the pullout by April 30. Republicans have insisted it take 60 votes to pass – a de facto filibuster threat because it takes as many votes to cut off debate under Senate rules.With only three Republicans – Sens. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, Olympia Snowe of Maine and Gordon Smith of Oregon – having promised to back the measure, it’s expected to fail.Frustrated by the minority’s ability to block its anti-war proposals, Democratic Majority Leader Harry Reid said he planned an endless night of votes and live quorum calls to force members to the floor in advance of the Wednesday morning vote.”We’re not going to let everybody go home and have a good night’s rest,” Reid, D-Nev., told reporters.Republicans shrugged off the endless session as political theater.”I doubt that they can accomplish in an extra seven hours what they’ve failed to accomplish in the last seven months,” said Don Stewart, McConnell’s spokesman.On the GOP side, two moderate Republicans with respected foreign policy credentials have proposed their own hurry-up initiative, winning a polite but clear rejection from the White House.Bush’s national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, said “no” when asked Sunday whether Bush could live with the proposal by Sens. John Warner of Virginia and Richard Lugar of Indiana.Military officials have repeatedly warned against drawing down U.S. troops too soon, with the latest warning coming from British Army Lt. Gen. Graeme Lamb.Lamb, deputy commander of international forces in Iraq, said Monday that Iraqis have a way to go to cleanse a police force infiltrated by Shiite militiamen. Officials have removed some 11,000 police suspected of sectarian bias, Lamb told Pentagon reporters. He added that the problem won’t be “solved overnight” and said the military needs more time to make progress.”I sense we’re on a fair course right now … it would be a shame to change it,” Lamb said.—Associated Press writer Pauline Jelinek contributed to this story.