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On Iraq Issue, Nine Senators Hold the Key

When it comes to the Iraq war, the Senate is now being ruled by a group of nine senators who have moved back and forth this year on votes related to the four-year-old conflict.

About 90 senators have remained static in their positions -- 47 Democrats consistently casting anti-war votes, while 42 Republicans and one independent consistently cast votes aligned with President George W. Bush.

The remaining nine senators have shifted on the various proposals that have come up for debate. Sometimes they've denied the anti-war forces a majority and other times switched sides to deal defeats to Bush. (Only 99 senators have cast votes this year, as Sen. Tim Johnson continues to recover from a brain hemorrhage.)

The two Democrats and seven Republicans in the group hail primarily from the centrist wings of their respective caucuses. Yesterday was the most recent example of this group's power, as two senators switched their positions on imposing a timeline for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq -- a change that came just 12 days after the two lawmakers had voted against a proposed withdrawal timeline.

"I so admire the courage of the new voters we had on this," Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said moments after Sens. Chuck Hagel (R-Neb.) and Ben Nelson (D-Neb.) helped deliver a 50-48 majority on the issue.

It's the second time in as many months that the Senate first failed to get a clear majority for an anti-war provision, only to gain a majority days later. Each time it's been members from the group of nine senators determining the majority outcome.

On March 15, the Senate voted on a nearly identically worded resolution regarding troop withdrawal, with only 48 senators voting in favor -- 47 Democrats and Sen. Gordon Smith (R-Ore.).

Yesterday, Hagel and Nelson flipped to the other side, voting against an amendment offered by Sen. Thad Cochran (R-Miss.) that would have stripped the withdrawal language from a supplemental spending bill. Hagel took a defiant stand calling for "Congress to step forward and establish responsible boundaries and conditions" for military involvement in Iraq. And Nelson, in a floor statement and speaking with reporters afterward, said he believed that the amendment to strip the withdrawal timeline also would have deleted clauses labeling the battle in Iraq a civil war and demanding political negotiations with other regional powers. Without those provisions, Nelson said he couldn't support the overall bill, so he opposed the amendment.

Thus a majority of the Senate now supports setting a timeline for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq.

On Feb. 5, Reid tried to move to a debate on a nonbinding sense of the Senate resolution opposing Bush's surge of more than 21,000 troops into Iraq, but he needed 60 votes to shut down Republican complaints. He only got 49 other votes, so under parliamentary rules, Reid voted with Republicans allowing him to bring the bill back up quickly at a later date.

By Feb. 17, with an additional Democrat in attendance, Reid got five Republicans to change their positions -- Hagel, Smith and Sens. John Warner (Va.), Arlen Specter (Pa.) and Olympia Snowe (Maine). Reid then had 56 votes opposing President Bush's plans to send more U.S. troops to Iraq.

In each instance, Democrats have won symbolic victories. Reid needed 60 votes to formally pass the sense of the Senate resolution, and President Bush has vowed to veto the supplemental bill as long as it includes a date certain for withdrawal. It would take a two-thirds majority to override that veto, so it's far from certain that a withdrawal deadline will be signed into law. (The House approved a similar withdrawal timeline last week on a 218-212 vote approving the supplemental spending bill.)

But Democrats were ecstatic to have a majority of both chambers of Congress calling for U.S. troops to come home by early 2008. "This is not one battle, it's a long-term campaign," said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.).

Here's a breakdown of the nine senators whose votes helped swing the Iraq debate (the senators are Norm Coleman (R-Minn), Susan Collins (R-Maine), Hagel, Ben Nelson, Mark Pryor (D-Ark.), Smith, Snowe, Specter and Warner).

The chart shows their votes on the four most critical Iraq votes this year: The first vote on the nonbinding resolution opposing the surge (Feb. 5), the second vote on the sense-of-the-Senate anti-surge resolution (Feb. 17), the first vote in favor of a timeline for troop withdrawal (March 15) and yesterday's vote for troop withdrawal:

              Feb. 5        Feb. 17        Mar. 15        Mar. 27
Coleman        Aye            Aye            Nay            Nay
Collins        Aye            Aye            Nay            Nay
Hagel          Nay            Aye            Nay            Aye
Nelson         Aye            Aye            Nay            Aye
Pryor          Aye            Aye            Nay            Nay
Smith          Nay            Aye            Aye            Aye
Snowe          Nay            Aye            Nay            Nay
Specter        Nay            Aye            Nay            Nay
Warner         Nay            Aye            Nay            Nay

By Paul Kane  |  March 28, 2007; 3:03 PM ET
Categories:  Senate  
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