On Iraq vote, Senate goes to the mattresses

The Baltimore Sun

WASHINGTON -- By mid-afternoon yesterday, Sen. Barbara A. Mikulski -- an experienced hand at Senate all-nighters -- had picked out her cot in the Capitol's ornate LBJ Room yesterday. Sen. Benjamin L. Cardin, a rookie preparing for his first overnight session in the upper chamber, broke out the bedding that his staff had given him for just such an occasion.

Both were preparing for a long night ahead, a marathon floor debate between Democrats demanding a vote to pull U.S. soldiers out of Iraq and Republicans who have been using Senate rules to block the move.

Democrats, unable with their slim majority to muster the votes necessary to overcome Republican blocking tactics, decided to challenge the minority party by choosing to keep the Senate through the night. As workers rolled beds into the Capitol -- an event carefully staged for cameras -- Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was threatening to call votes during the wee hours to keep senators from wandering off.

Republicans denounced the whole thing as a publicity stunt.

"Our enemies aren't threatened by talk-a-thons, and our troops deserve better," said Sen. Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.

Lengthy Senate debate to block legislative action, a maneuver known as a filibuster, is largely an anachronism in the modern era. Senate rules now require the votes of three-fifths of the 100-member Senate in order to proceed.

But Democrat Reid of Nevada maintained that senators had "no choice but to stay in session to continue speaking out on behalf of our troops and all Americans."

Reid planned several votes on a motion to instruct Senate Sergeant-at-arms Terrance Gainer to "request the attendance of absent senators," in an effort to keep members near the chamber. The motion passed 41-37 on a second vote just after midnight. Having made his point, Reid announced there would be no more votes until 5 a.m.

The sides are grappling over a Democratic-sponsored amendment to 2008 defense policy legislation that would require a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days. President Bush has vowed to veto any such measure that reaches his desk.

Maryland's senators, among the few in Washington able to go home after a day's work, were preparing for a rare overnight in D.C.

Cardin, who pulled some late-night work during his 20 years in the House of Representatives, gulped down coffee during a morning appearance in Rockville. Scheduled to preside over the Senate from midnight to 1 a.m. today, he brought a change of clothes to the Capitol and his evening dosage of medicine, "so I can eat as much cholesterol as possible."

Cardin -- like Mikulski, an opponent of the war -- endorsed the decision to keep the Senate in session.

"It's important to do everything we can to change the policy in Iraq, and it's difficult to understand how the Republican leadership can insist upon a 60-vote margin on every issue that comes up," he said.

"That's an abuse of the minority rights," he added. Republicans point out that when Democrats were in the minority, they employed identical tactics.

Sen. Ben Nelson, a Nebraska Democrat, told a Capitol Hill publication, CongressDailyPM, that he and Mikulski were "comparing the colors of our pajamas so we don't clash." Mikulski said only that she left her pink curlers at home.

Mikulski said Democrats were "sick and tired of this threatening of a filibuster. And so we're saying, if you want to talk, you go right ahead. We're going to stay all night and we will break this filibuster and we will break new ground on Iraq.

"The Constitution gives us the power of checks and balances," she added. "The president only wants us to write the checks. Tonight, we'll provide the balance."

matthew.brown@baltsun.com

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