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Senate Debates Through the Night on Iraq War


The all-night debate is over, but the congressional deadlock over Iraq policy goes on. The Senate couldn't get enough votes today to consider a measure that would begin withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq in four months. A small majority of the Senate supported consideration of the measure. Fifty-two senators voted aye, but 60 votes were needed. The outcome was not unexpected, but the long hours of debate were still intense and often impassioned.

Senator JOHN McCAIN (Republican, Arizona): Nothing we have done for the last 24 hours will have change any facts on the ground in Iraq or made the outcome of the war any more or less important to the security of our country.

Unidentified Man: The Levin amendment is not a credible alternative to the current strategy.

Senator HARRY REID (Democrat, Nevada): The American public is opposed to the surge. They're opposed to the war. They want our valiant troops to come home.

AMOS: Joining us now is NPR's congressional correspondent David Welna. Welcome to the program.

DAVID WELNA: Hi, Deborah.

AMOS: David, what made this vote today, except for the part where they were up all night, different from debates over the last several months and years?

WELNA: Well, I think that there's a sense that this vote is really a vote on where the war in Iraq is going to go, and right now this is was a test of whether there are the votes in the Senate to force President Bush to change his policy in Iraq. That's why many Republicans did not want the amendment that would force troop withdrawals to begin within four months to even come up.

That's what the vote was about today. It was about just moving to that amendment, not even voting on the amendment. This was a filibuster. It's the right of the minority to use its minority status to demand 60 votes to go forward.

It was a sense of a very historic day and the fact that this amendment will not be taken up I think means that those who want a change in Iraq are probably going to have to wait a little bit longer.

AMOS: Well, and that is what is now key. We have a majority in the Senate and in the House who do want change, but there's no immediate prospect for that, so why?

WELNA: Well, it's a simple majority. There are a hundred members of the Senate and there were 52 votes to proceed to this troop withdrawal amendment, so if you were simply going by the simple majority, you would have enough senators.

But right now I think there are many Republicans with misgivings about Iraq, but they've agreed to stick with President Bush on this until mid-September, when General David Petraeus, the commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who is in Baghdad, come and tell Congress how things are going there. At that point I think you might see a stampede away from the Iraq policy.

AMOS: So what we haven't talked about is the shadow of the president's veto. You can have a majority, but you need more than a majority.

WELNA: That's right. You need 67 votes in the Senate to override a presidential veto. It's not clear, even in September, whether there would be enough Republican departures from the White House to get that 67. But right now it looks like there are only four Republicans who are willing to openly vote against the president at this point.

AMOS: David, did this debate today, as it has now ended, did it change anything?

WELNA: Well, I think that one thing it really changed was that the defense authorization bill, which they were trying to amend with this troop withdrawal related amendments, has been pulled by Majority Leader Reid, and it's not clear when it will come back on the floor again. So there were other amendments also related to drawing down troops. They're all on ice, as it were for now, but Reid said he's hoping to bring it back and it may not be until September when we see that.

AMOS: Well, thank you very much. David Welna, who's reporting from Capitol Hill. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Deborah Amos
Deborah Amos covers the Middle East for NPR News. Her reports can be heard on NPR's award-winning Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Weekend Edition.
David Welna
David Welna is NPR's national security correspondent.