Robert Novak

WASHINGTON -- Listening to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell last weekend boast he had the votes to prevent closing Senate debate on Iraq, Republicans opposing President Bush's troop surge in Iraq feared the worst. The new Republican leader sounded as though he wanted to prevent passage of an anti-surge resolution at the cost of making his party look obstructionist. That's exactly what happened.

McConnell's tactics resulted in no resolution passed by the Senate any time soon. The White House was overjoyed. But Tuesday's newspaper headlines indicated a public relations fiasco for Republicans: "GOP Stalls Debate On Troop Increase" (Washington Post); "In Senate, GOP Blocks a Debate Over Iraq Policy" (New York Times); "Vote on Iraq is Blocked by GOP" (USA Today). Considering that outcome from a tactical victory, the Republicans might be better off with a strategic defeat. It is unclear who won in the Senate this week.

McConnell's maiden voyage as party floor leader showed he may be too much into process. Seldom has the Republican case been presented more poorly than it was Monday. But in his first big test as majority leader, Sen. Harry Reid overreached trying to control the action. The developments also showed less than full control of his own Democratic caucus.

From the start, there has been a clear Senate bipartisan majority opposed to the 21,000-troop reinforcement. But nothing is that simple in the U.S. Senate. Sen. Joseph Biden pushed a harshly worded resolution through his Foreign Relations Committee, largely on party lines. It was obvious it could not collect the 60 votes needed to cut off debate, a prerequisite in today's Senate.

The prestigious Republican Sen. John Warner drafted a more conciliatory anti-surge resolution, with substantial Democratic support. On Jan. 25, Warner wrote Biden he would not negotiate. That left Reid the choice of pressuring Democratic defectors or embracing Warner. He took the latter course, after making cosmetic changes.

But the White House and McConnell lobbied against Warner and pushed a unique new approach: Republican Sen. Judd Gregg's resolution, ignoring the surge and saying Congress "should not . . . endanger United States military forces in the field" by "elimination or reduction of funds." That is the funding question that most Democrats in Congress desperately want to avoid.

Robert Novak

Robert Novak (1931-2009) was a syndicated columnist and editor of the Evans-Novak Political Report.

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