Wednesday, February 07, 2007

Republicans block debate on Iraq

Republicans block debate on Iraq
By Susan Cornwell

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Republicans blocked a debate on the Iraq war in the U.S. Senate on Monday, dealing a setback to critics of President George W. Bush's plan to send in thousands more troops, but Democrats warned they would not give up trying to force Bush to change course.

Republicans largely united to employ Senate rules against the newly elected Democratic majority to derail the debate on a resolution expressing disagreement with Bush's plan to deploy an additional 21,500 troops in Iraq.

Democrats vowed to return to the subject when it considers billions more in funding for the Iraq war requested by Bush on Monday.

"We are going to debate Iraq. They may stop us temporarily from debating the escalation but they are not going to stop us from debating Iraq," declared Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid of Nevada.

The resolution would not have been binding on the president, but it was the first serious attempt by Congress to confront Bush over the unpopular war.

Under Senate rules it needed 60 votes before the 100-member Senate could begin debate. It received only 49, with 47 voting against in a largely party-line vote.

Opponents said the measure, sponsored by Virginia Republican Sen. John Warner and Michigan Democratic Sen. Carl Levin, was a thinly disguised political slap at Bush that would dishearten U.S. troops and signal American disunity.

Republicans also said they voted against the measure in protest because they could not get amendments considered on their terms.

"We were asking for a fair process. We are ready for the debate. We expected to have it this week," said Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican.

Supporters said the resolution would be a first step, a warning to Bush that he must revamp his strategy to start moving toward a withdrawal of the 138,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

"I am troubled by this," said Illinois Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin. "If the Republicans in the Senate cannot swallow the thin soup of the Warner resolution how will they ever stomach a real debate on the war in Iraq?"

Some liberal Democrats want Congress to move immediately to do something with more teeth -- like refusing to fund the additional troops, or capping troop levels.

The White House response was restrained. "All sides have a right to be heard in this debate, and we support Sen. McConnell's and the Republicans' right to be able to offer the amendments they want to offer," spokeswoman Dana Perino said.

Two Republicans refused to follow their party leadership and voted with Democrats to move to debate. They were Sen. Susan Collins of Maine and Sen. Norm Coleman of Minnesota, both of whom face re-election in 2008.

Republican senators facing re-election have an especially difficult decision on Iraq votes given that voters are angry with Bush's war policy and polls show most Americans oppose sending more troops.

(Additional reporting by Donna Smith and Thomas Ferraro)