Thursday, February 08, 2007

Smith Backpedals on Iraq, But Not Before MoveOn Attacks

I still am not sure what to think of Harry Reid's prowess as Senate Majority Leader. His personal politics are a touch too timid and conservative for me, but I'm not generally a litmus test voter, and overall he's a good Democrat. As a caucus leader and allied-coalition builder, I'm not yet sold--he seems to talk a good game, but then fails to follow up or allows his position to be diluted. The main memory that comes up is of his forcing the Senate into closed session last year, in order to force the administration's hand on Phase II of the Iraq investigations on intelligence. He got the Republicans good and scared, made them promise to move forward on preparing the report...and then let them essentially drop the matter until they lost control in November.

When the Warner bill on Iraq escalation became the favored version for Democrats at the apparent private urgings of Reid, I thought it was a too-easy capitulation to a watered down resolution--the mood of the country suggested that the tougher Feingold bill should have been his aim. Whether he would have kept all 50 Democrats (49 + Bernie Sanders) on a Feingold vote isn't clear, but it seemed at the time as if Reid and Majority Whip Dick Durbin had misjudged the Republican count entirely--not only did they not get 60 votes, they didn't even get a majority, despite having Republicans Collins and Coleman on their side. If it was going to lose anyway, why not lose on a tougher bill, I thought?

And to make matters worse, after the vote Reid said the Senate would move on to other matters. WHAT?? How tone-deaf can you be? What other issue could possibly be more important? I figured that he didn't literally mean there would be no more action on the escalation, but it still seemed like a defeatist thing to say, having given up far too early.

So I probably owe Harry a virtual apology; as of this morning Reid is smelling like the roses Portland Mayor Potter is planting {pdf} today for the Centennial Rose Festival. Seven Republican Senators--including our own Gordon Smith--sent Reid a letter {pdf} explaining why they voted to block debate, but actually really DO want a debate. Their spin is that they were disgusted that Republicans were not allowed the right to submit unlimited, barely-germane alternatives, and that the inter-party leadership bickering caused them to vote against cloture as a protest. I'm having real trouble parsing that one--to teach the Democrats AND Republicans a lesson, they voted with the Republicans who didn't want the measure to pass? What's the lesson? And what are Coleman and Collins doing as signatories--they voted FOR cloture!

The Washington Post offers a much more plausible reason for the letter:
The letter began circulating yesterday evening after it became apparent the Senate was deadlocked over the war resolution and Reid was prepared to move on to other matters. McConnell and many in his party have aggressively defended their decision to block the bipartisan resolution as an issue of fairness because Democrats would not agree to GOP procedural demands.

But some Republicans were uneasy about appearing to have stymied the debate. The letter appeared so suddenly that, although it was addressed to Reid, the Democratic leader had not seen his copy before Warner read the text on the Senate floor. [emph me]
Why were they uneasy? If Reid was going to follow through on his threat and not bring the issue up again any time soon, the Warner vote would stand as THE position statement on Iraq in the Senate--and 47 Republicans (46 + Lieberman) would be portrayed as being for the escalation. Did Reid really intend to drop the matter? I doubt it. But it only took a day or two of stories headlined "Republicans Block Debate on Iraq" before the threat began to seem ominous for some of those who opted to block it. And that means that not only did Reid hold firm on Republican demands to allow other votes, he kept his caucus perfectly together--and forced the minority to fracture into indecisiveness, while framing the issue in very simple "We said no to escalation; they said yes" terms.

For Gordon Smith of course, such wobbling and tortured explaining is par for the course. Last Thursday, he was going to vote for and cosponsor the Warner bill. Monday, he not only didn't cosponsor it, he voted against it. By Wednesday, he had once again reaffirmed his support for "the concept" of the bill, although reserving the right to weasel out again later if Democrats continue to refuse alternatives. Perhaps it will come up again on the omnibus spending bill he's threatened to filibuster because of timber payments (a shameless move that we shamefully haven't even mentioned at LO; as one political wonk put it to me, "Yeah, this coming from a guy who didn't lift a fucking finger for it all last session.") Will he vote for cloture on a potential Warner amendment to the spending bill--and then shut everything down on timber payments? That would be classic.

MoveOn isn't waiting around for the next permutation of the Gordon Smith Spin Cycle. They have put together a quick ad that highlights exactly what Smith and the other signees (most of whom are up for re-election in 2008) are afraid of--their vote will be seen as favoring Bush's escalation plan. Here's the version specially made for Gordo, and targeted to air in Oregon: