WASHINGTON—Republicans blocked the Senate from beginning debate Monday on the Iraq war, a move that's expected to delay but not prevent a vote on a nonbinding resolution opposing President Bush's planned buildup of 21,500 troops.
The 49-47 procedural vote fell well short of the 60 votes that the Democrats needed to move to debate under Senate rules.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said Republicans were prepared to begin debate this week if Democrats agreed to allow debate on a proposal by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H. His resolution takes no position on the troop buildup but rejects the notion of cutting off money for ground operations. "There's not a single Republican senator seeking to avoid this debate," McConnell said.
Democrats shot back that they'll go beyond nonbinding resolutions against the troop buildup in the months ahead, including efforts to attach strings to war appropriations.
"You can run but you can't hide," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. "They can maybe stop us temporarily from debating the escalation. They're not going to stop us from debating Iraq."
Democratic leaders had hoped to confine debate this week to two measures, one a bipartisan resolution to oppose the buildup led by Sens. John Warner, R-Va., and Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin, D-Mich., the other a resolution by Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., that supports the president.
Republicans say Democrats are afraid that many in their own caucus would sign on to Gregg's plan. Such a vote might reveal Democrats' divisions over the idea of cutting off money for troops. It also might be the only resolution that can pass, if the Warner-Levin plan falls short of the 60-vote threshold needed to avoid a filibuster.
Democrats accused Republicans of teaming up with the White House to derail a debate that could embarrass the administration. They said the purpose of Gregg's plan was to muddy the waters and predicted that Republicans would keep making additional demands if they won on this one.
"Iraq dominates our national life. It's on the mind of tens of millions of Americans," said Joseph Biden, D-Del., the Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman. Not voting on what course to pursue "would be a total forfeiture of our responsibility," he said.
Senate Republican Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi said, "This is all show and tell about nothing, because it's not binding. Let's stop questioning each other's motives. Let's work this out. This is all a whole lot of sound and fury signifying nothing, because the real debate will come on the supplemental or future appropriations" legislation.
The showdown over war powers came as a budget deadline approaches that also could force the war debate to be postponed. The Senate must pass a continuing budget resolution by Feb. 15 to avoid a federal government shutdown, because Republicans failed last year to pass spending bills for the current fiscal year.
While leaders were confident that a shutdown would be averted, they acknowledged that they'd probably need to put aside the war debate if it spills into next week. The week after that, Congress is in recess for Presidents Day.
Senate Majority Whip Richard Durbin, D-Ill., accused McConnell of trying to run out the clock until March.
"Senator McConnell is not new to the Senate," Durbin said. "If he can delay this matter for three days or four days, we'll reach a point where we can't reach it before the presidential break recess. That's their strategy."
(McClatchy Newspapers correspondent Renee Schoof contributed to this report.)
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.