WASHINGTON -- The most serious congressional challenge to President Bush's strategy in the four-year-old Iraq War stalled yesterday when Senate Republicans blocked consideration of a resolution criticizing his plan to boost troop levels.
Senate leaders from both parties continued to negotiate on a compromise that would allow Democrats to bring up the resolution again. But the GOP gambit dealt an early setback to the nascent campaign by Senate Democrats to take on the Bush administration's management of the war.
It may also mean that, in challenging Bush, leadership may shift to House Democrats. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, a California Democrat, and other House leaders have said they may bring up their own resolution opposing the White House's latest war plan as soon as next week.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, are taking a major political risk as they cast themselves as the barrier to a war debate that American voters have said they want Congress to begin.
Sen. Mitch McConnell, a Kentucky Republican, led a nearly unified Republican caucus in opposition to a procedural vote to allow formal debate to start on the Iraq resolution.
Needing 60 votes to overcome the GOP blockade, Democrats, who cling to a narrow 51-49 majority in the Senate, could muster only 50. The final vote was 49-47, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, a Nevada Democrat, voted no in a move that allows him to bring the issue back up.
McConnell accused the Democratic majority of blocking consideration of Republican alternatives to the resolution. "We are in effect being denied a fair process for this extremely important debate," he said.
But Democratic leaders were quick yesterday to tag their GOP opponents as stooges for a White House that has been desperately trying to avoid an embarrassing rebuke from Capitol Hill.
"We are witness to the spectacle of a White House and Republican senators unwilling to even engage in a debate on a war that claims at least one American life every day," Sen. Richard J. Durbin, a Illinois Republican, charged in one of a series of impassioned floor speeches by lawmakers from both parties.
Democratic leaders had until yesterday publicly touted their work with a handful of GOP lawmakers critical of the president's war plan. And support had appeared to be building for a nonbinding measure sponsored by Sen. John W. Warner, a Virginia Republican, that expresses that the Senate "disagrees" with the troop escalation.
Crafted to attract support from both Democrats and Republicans, the carefully worded resolution avoids the confrontational language often used by Democratic lawmakers who have attacked the White House.
The president has already started to increase the troop level by 21,500 from the approximately 135,000 in Iraq when he announced his plan.
Last week, Warner and his co-authors amended the eight-page resolution to express opposition to any cut in funds for troops, which many GOP lawmakers have expressed concern about. The measure won the support of seven Republican senators and a majority of Democrats.
But as its authors labored to convince centrist Republicans to join them, GOP leaders allied with the president battled back.
Sen. John McCain, an Arizona Republican - a leading proponent of the Bush Iraq plan - last week proposed a resolution that backed the new Iraq strategy, although it also expressed the need for the Iraqi government to meet certain benchmarks it has long failed to achieve.
And Sen. Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, offered a short resolution opposing any funding limits for American troops in the field.
Reid said yesterday that Democrats were willing to consider all three, as long as each resolution only required a simple majority to pass. Such an agreement would almost guarantee that the Warner measure criticizing the Bush plan would pass, dealing a major defeat to the White House.
Noam N. Levey writes for the Los Angeles Times.