Saturday, July 07, 2007

"Senate Floor To Be a Stage For '08 Race"

The four Senate Democrats seeking their party's presidential nomination will take their campaigns to the chamber's floor next week, pushing new limits on U.S. involvement in Iraq in an attempt to burnish their antiwar credentials.
Next week, the Senate turns to the annual Defense Department authorization bill, legislation that is becoming a magnet for Iraq-related amendments as Democrats press ahead in their quest to force President Bush to change course and begin withdrawing U.S. troops. Among those hoping to reshape the bill are a who's who of the 2008 field -- Sens. Barack Obama (Ill.), Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.), Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Del.) and Christopher J. Dodd (Conn.).

For months, Senate Majority Leader Harry M. Reid (Nev.) discouraged his caucus's 2008 candidates from taking prominent roles on Iraq, in hopes of inoculating his party from charges of politicizing the war.

But Reid spokesman Jim Manley said the Democratic leader has given up on that proposition, a decision that was probably inevitable as the party's base pushes aggressively for immediate withdrawal. Reid has assured all antiwar Democrats drafting Iraq amendments that they will get a vote during the defense policy debate -- a pledge that amounts to free airtime for the four presidential candidates.

Clinton, teaming up with Sen. Robert C. Byrd (W.Va.), is lobbying other senators to support a measure that would essentially revoke the authority Congress gave Bush in 2002 to wage the war. Obama is drafting amendments to improve mental health services for veterans and to beef up oversight of military contractors. Dodd's amendment would begin troop withdrawals within a month and terminate funding for combat operations next spring.

Biden will seek additional support for mine-resistant vehicles and will pitch in to help Democratic leaders build consensus on troop-withdrawal language -- an effort likely to become the debate's focal point.

The tit-for-tat between the Democratic presidential candidates flared up during the Iraq funding debate in May, when the four senators sought to outdo one another in their opposition to the war. Clinton and Obama, both of whom had previously resisted firm withdrawal deadlines, wound up embracing a cutoff of funding for the war next year, the toughest, most controversial proposal to reach the floor.

In that last major floor debate on the issue, Democrats were handed a substantial setback in their drive to curtail the president's ability to wage the war on his terms: They failed to override a veto of an emergency war spending bill, eventually sending it back to Bush's desk with few restrictions.

Clinton's deauthorization plan has raised a few eyebrows. The idea was considered by Democratic leaders early in the spring, after Biden and Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) floated it, but it was set aside as too contentious. Yet for Clinton, whose support for the 2002 authorization remains a point of criticism for many Democratic primary voters, the proposal is tantamount to a legislative reversal.

"It is time for the President to make the case to the Congress and the American people for the U.S. military's changed mission in Iraq," Clinton and Byrd said in a letter to Democratic senators. "The American public and our troops in the field are entitled to a new debate about this war."

The Senate has traditionally been a stumbling block for presidential ambitions. But with Iraq on the table, it is providing a prime opportunity for Democrats to showcase their leadership skills and foreign-policy views.

"The war has been absolutely huge for them," said Barry C. Burden, a professor of political science at the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the author of a 2002 study that mapped the miserable track record of U.S. senators as presidential candidates.

Only two sitting senators, Warren G. Harding and John F. Kennedy, have succeeded as presidential candidates. One who came up short, Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), said the landscape now appears radically different from when he launched his 2004 campaign, shortly after the Iraq invasion.

The Democratic nominee's infamous line about war spending -- "I actually did vote for the $87 billion before I voted against it" -- typified the Senate curse. But Kerry said because voters today are far more skeptical about the war, they now understand the distinctions.

"We're five years into the war, and the strategy has failed. And it's failed deep into the consciousness of the American people," Kerry said. "There's not the kind of confusion there was in 2004."

It might appear that former senator John Edwards (D-N.C.) would benefit from giving up his seat in 2004, given the historical odds -- 13 former senators have won the presidency since 1789. But the last entry on Edwards's official Iraq record was his 2002 vote for authorization. He is now a strong critic of the war and has apologized to primary voters at every turn, but he can play no direct role in changing U.S. policy.

On the Republican side, Sen. John McCain (Ariz.) is spending as little time as possible on Capitol Hill as he tries to revive his struggling campaign. A staunch Bush ally, McCain is on the wrong side of public opinion on Iraq, and every Senate vote on the war reinforces that. But as the highest-ranking Republican on the Armed Services Committee, McCain must spend part of July in Washington seated on the Senate floor, managing the defense bill.

"John McCain is a case study this year on the difficulty of running from the Senate," said former Senate majority leader Thomas A. Daschle (D-S.D.), who decided against a presidential bid in 2004, having learned from former senator Robert J. Dole (R-Kan.) that it is almost impossible to juggle both jobs.

"I did once before," shrugged McCain, referring to wearing two political hats. "It's fine."

Senate newcomer Obama has participated prominently in the Iraq debate as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee. The withdrawal timetable that the president vetoed tracked closely with a proposal Obama outlined in the Senate in January. He also was an early proponent of establishing benchmarks for the Iraqi government, an idea that Republicans and the White House also embraced.

"Obama's been against the war from the beginning, and being in the Senate offers him an opportunity to fight to end it," said his spokesman Bill Burton.

Dodd and Biden have found the Senate to be a useful -- and free -- forum for drawing attention to their long-shot campaigns. Dodd ran ads in Iowa urging his 2008 rivals to vote with him to cut off war funding and renamed the bill "Feingold-Reid-Dodd" on his news releases, joining original sponsors Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wis.) and Reid, the Senate leader.

Biden, the Foreign Relations Committee chairman, said his Senate perch "allows me to have instant credibility" on Iraq. "If I had been the best governor ever, it still isn't the same," he said.

"On an awful lot of issues, the case can be made that governors accomplish things, while members of Congress spend their time debating and voting," said Jim Jordan, a Democratic political consultant who is advising Dodd and who served as Kerry's campaign manager in 2003. "The war has changed all that."

The downsides for Senate presidential candidates still exist. The Democratic-led Congress, after all, is almost as unpopular as Bush.

"It's a rare situation, because you don't normally have an Iraq," Daschle said. "For Democrats, to a certain extent, it will be important that we show we can govern. The country's perception of these candidates will be affected, in part, by its perception of the Senate as a whole."

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