WASHINGTON — Cots for senators to nap on were trucked in. Anti-war veterans
planned to pack the Senate gallery after dark. And the leadership of the self-styled "world's greatest deliberative body" gave senators round-the-clock assignments so that the chamber would always be manned.
"I'm going to be presiding at 4 a.m.!" said freshman Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.
Democrats moved ahead Tuesday with the Senate's first official all-nighter in four years, hoping that the publicity would make Republicans look extra bad for using their procedural powers to block a vote on an amendment forcing troop withdrawals from Iraq.
The amendment by Sens. Carl Levin, D-Mich., and Jack Reed, D-R.I. would begin withdrawing combat troops in four months, leaving others to fight terrorists and train Iraqis, and would likely win a majority in the 100-member Senate.
But with Democrats in charge by only 51-49 (counting independent Democrat Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, who opposes the amendment), and with only three Republicans co-sponsoring it, the measure lacks the 60-vote supermajority needed to overcome a Republican procedural hurdle permitted by Senate rules. The hurdle's called a "filibuster" — endless debate to block a vote, stoppable only by a 60-vote majority.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said he was pulling the all-nighter "for the sake of our troops and the American people."
"It will focus attention on the obstructionism of the Republicans," Reid said.
Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., told reporters, "You're going to be subjected to theater tonight — and bad theater at that."
The underlying question troubles Americans across the political spectrum: What's
more responsible, withdrawing U.S. troops now or keeping them there longer? At least 13 Republicans have publicly criticized President Bush's troop increase, and many more are growing impatient.
But many Republicans said Democrats were crossing the line between debate and theatrics, and dismissed the all-nighter as a cheap stunt.
"I have much better things to do with my night," said Sen. Larry Craig, R-Idaho. "They all include ZZZZs."
Sen. Kit Bond, R-Mo., called it "such a shallow political show."
Sen. Mel Martinez, R-Fla., said Democrats were running "a great risk of overplaying their hand."
"This is the first step I think of effectively outing the Republican strategy," said freshman Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Mo. "I think they figured out that their success is our failure. And that's exactly what Americans are sick of, that kind of partisan gamesmanship. So hopefully we can put a little pressure on the situation and the American people will go, 'Well, that's really bad.'"
When Republicans were in charge, Democrats used filibuster threats to block Bush's judicial nominees whom they considered too conservative. Frustration over that prompted an ultimately unsuccessful GOP-led all-nighter in 2003.
At the time, Democrats vigorously defended their right to demand 60 votes on controversial nominees. Now that Democrats hold a slight majority, Republicans say Democrats have suddenly decided that mounting a filibuster is an abuse of power.
"You can't do it with a straight face," said Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz.,
rolling his eyes and raising his voice on the Senate floor. "It may be frustrating. It certainly was to us when we were in the majority and the Democrats were in the minority and employed it. But to somehow act as if it's unprecedented . . . it doesn't pass the smell test."
Still, senators packed overnight bags — or at least fresh shirts and suits for the morning — and prepared for a long night.
Some embraced the spirit of debate. Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, a senator for 30
years, admitted he had forced some all-nighters during his tenure. "This is where it really gets interesting and fun."
Democrats threatened to hold "live quorum calls," when the sergeant-at-arms could be instructed to force absent senators to the floor. That's rare — although in 1988, then-Sen. Bob Packwood, R-Ore., was forcibly brought in.
As of early evening, it was unclear whether Democrats would resort to such steps. They also said they weren't planning to sneak through other legislation — but in the middle of the night, anyone from either party might try anything.
Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon, one of three Republicans backing the troop withdrawal amendment, said of forced all-nighters: "It was a dud when we did it. We'll see if it is a dud for the Democrats."
He predicted that most Americans wouldn't be paying any attention because, in mid-July, "people are on vacation."
(Lesley Clark of The Miami Herald contributed.)