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Rare Overnight Senate Session Sobering


Joining us now to continue our discussion about the debate and the politics surrounding it is NPR news analyst Juan Williams.

Good morning, Juan.

JUAN WILLIAMS: Good morning, Linda.

WERTHEIMER: What strikes you first about this overnight debate as it's unfolded?

WILLIAMS: Well, I guess the rarity of it. You know, it was 40 years ago that there was an all-night session, and then the Democrats were in the minority and fighting against having judges that they believed to be radically conservative put on the federal courts by the Republicans.

This debate feels to me more momentous, because it's about war. It's about, I guess it's 3,600 American troops now dead, and the $400 billion spent over the last five years on the war.

Through the night and early morning, what I saw was a very sober debate. There were few examples of cheap rhetoric about the other side being asleep or needing to wake up. At 1:00 a.m., Senator Tom Coburn of Oklahoma, a Republican, said if the all-night session was no stunt, but a necessary and important debate. And I thought he was right.

WERTHEIMER: This is basically about putting pressure on Republicans, especially those who have misgivings about the war but so far haven't voted against the president. The majority are still expected to stand with him. What did the Democrats think they get out of forcing the issue?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think - among Republican senators I spoke with over the last few days, several mentioned the appeals they've heard from Republican leader in the Senate Mitch McConnell of Kentucky. And McConnell has spoken of loyalty to the party which is under pressure because the war is so unpopular with the public. He's also emphasized letting the generals run the war and waiting to hear from General David Petraeus in September before deciding on the next step.

Now it is telling that the Republican senators appear less responsive to arguments coming from President Bush or loyalty to President Bush then they're need to stick together, given the unwavering support that they've given the war over the last five years. So the Democrats really want to force that point and make it apparent to the American public and to Democratic voters that they are forcing the Republicans on the spot here.

WERTHEIMER: There are 21 Republicans out on that floor now who are facing home state voters next year, and about half of them look pretty vulnerable. Some of them think they're goners if this war is still going a year from now. What is the White House doing to help these endangered incumbents feel confident enough to vote against this time table, to keep Republican senators from defecting?

WILLIAMS: Well, the key political message when the - from the White House is that the president is serious about looking at drawing down some troops, you know, in March '08. There will be reductions taking place in time eight months before the November '08 election to defuse the issue as a powerful drag on Republican political prospects. Over the last few days, Senator McConnell, the Republican leader in the Senate, has been telling fellow Republicans there's no question that this is a time for a change of course, but it's important that the change not weaken U.S. interests in the Middle East or get terrorists any encouragement by being able to claim defeat of the U.S. His principal appeal for patience is that change is coming, but don't let Democrats or polls force the change.

WERTHEIMER: Juan, you've been following this debate over Iraq for years now, back to the original votes on authorizing force on the fall of 2002 - that was nearly six years ago. The debate has changed dramatically in that time. Is there anything about this latest edition of the debate that surprises you?

WILLIAMS: Linda, you know, after 9/11, the public and the Senate gave tremendous support to President Bush to defeat the specter of terrorism, the reality of terrorism. There was little debate over giving him authority to go to war, if you'll recall, over the enactment of the Patriot Act. Now the president is isolated. Newsweek Magazine had a - nearly 70 percent of Americans disapproving of his handling of the war in Iraq.

You have the Senate and the House change hands now largely over discontent with Iraq war. And now there's a split among party lines over the next step in dealing with Iraq. The sense of common destiny, Americans coming together to face danger now seems quaint, as if there was another era in history. It's a surprise to me how quickly and sharply the country's fractured over this.

WERTHEIMER: NPR News analyst Juan Williams. Thanks very much.

WILLIAMS: You're welcome, Linda. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Linda Wertheimer
As NPR's senior national correspondent, Linda Wertheimer travels the country and the globe for NPR News, bringing her unique insights and wealth of experience to bear on the day's top news stories.
Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.
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