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An ill-tempered Senate stalemate may have bought President George W. Bush two more months for his Iraq troop “surge” but a pivotal and even more testy showdown looms over the war’s fate in September.
Democrats failed on Wednesday to overcome blocking maneuvers by Bush’s allies, as a thinning line of Republican support held firm against their latest drive to get most US troops home by the end of next April.
A hoopla of pull-down beds, candlelight vigils and a gruelling all-night debate could not disguise the fact that Democrats, handed the reins of Congress by voters last year on a mandate to get troops home, lack the power to do so.
Even though a majority of Senators (52 to 47) voted in favor of a Democratic bill to start a withdrawal within 120 days, Republicans flexed the Senate’s arcane procedures to require a 60-vote supermajority.
The vote set of a new round of high-wire politics, with Democrats frustrated at their impotence, but wary of fiercely anti-war sentiment among their core supporters.
Republicans meanwhile, gambled on supporting Bush one more time, but cast a fearful eye at 2008 congressional elections which they desperately hope will not become another referendum on their backing for the unpopular war.
The immediate beneficiary of Wednesday’s crumbled Democratic bid to end the war was Bush, who likely got what he wanted — another two months to prove that his escalation strategy in Iraq is working.
“The consequence of it, I believe, is to kick the can down the road another two to three months,” said Democratic Senator Joseph Biden.
“In the meantime, many Americans are going to be injured and killed … that could be avoided.”
Senate Democratic Majority leader Harry Reid angrily pulled a Defense policy bill from the floor of the Senate after the vote.
The surprising move means that several other attempts to change war strategy, including one demanding a new plan by Republican veterans Senators John Warner and Richard Lugar likely will not get a vote.
While that gave Bush breathing space, Democrats appear to be calculating that softer, non-binding plans would actually be ignored by the White House, and so ease pressure on the president.
Their strategy to pin blame on Republicans for blocking an attempt to block an unpopular war carried its own risks however.
Republican Senator John McCain immediately accused Reid of “abandoning” battle weary US troops by slowing debate on the mammoth funding bill.
Democrats also know that Republican slowing tactics on numerous draft laws risk making their tenure in Congress look futile — a new Zogby poll this week found 83 percent of Americans think Congress is only doing a fair or poor job.
The House of Representatives will likely take up the charge with a couple of war related bills before an August recess, after passing their own troop withdrawal timetable, which Bush has vowed to veto, last week.
Republicans are also playing a dangerous political game.
While a hard core of party voters may be happy for them to stick with Bush and revile anything that smacks of defeat in Iraq, the war’s unpopularity with the wider public makes support for the conflict going into 2008 look like a losing proposition.
Bills like that framed by Warner and Lugar, and defections of several veteran Republicans in recent weeks, sent a subtle message that after September, Bush may not be able to count on a Republican firewall.
“We need to lay the groundwork for alternatives, so that when the President and Congress move to a new plan, it can be implemented safely and rapidly,” Lugar was to say in a congressional hearing on Iraq on Thursday.
September is crucial because it is then that US commander in Iraq General David Petraeus and US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker, will return to Washington to deliver a progress report on the surge strategy.
Republicans have already signalled that a change of strategy might be needed after the report — though Bush has vowed not to change any direction until he has heard from Petraeus.
An interim report on the surge last week made uncomfortable reading for the White House — saying Iraq had made only meager progress on a set of political and military benchmarks laid down by Congress.