World and Nation

Democrats Gamble They Can Finish Senate's Squabbling on Iraq Debate

As the House prepared to pass a symbolic resolution denouncing President Bush's war policy, Senate Democratic leaders on Thursday abruptly scheduled a weekend debate on Iraq in an effort to break a stalemate and avoid impressions that partisan bickering was weighing down deliberations over the war.

A steady line of Republicans and Democrats made their way to the House floor for a third consecutive day of debating Bush's troop buildup plan before the matter comes to a vote Friday. The Senate, stung by its own failure so far to act, spent much of Thursday locked in a debate about debating until Sen. Harry Reid, D-Nev., the majority leader, called the rare Saturday session.

"We demand an up-or-down vote on the resolution the House is debating as we speak," said Reid. "We're determined to give our troops and the American people the debate they deserve."

But when they convene Saturday afternoon, senators will not debate the Iraq resolution itself. Instead, they will be taking up a procedural vote required under Senate rules to move forward to the actual debate.

Democratic leaders were hoping that 10 days of mounting public pressure would lure enough Republicans in the Senate to their side to attain the 60 votes necessary to move to the Iraq resolution. A procedural vote on a similar resolution last week fell 11 votes short, but since then several Republicans who voted to block consideration of that resolution have taken the floor to express dismay that the Senate was, in effect, sidelined in the debate.

Senate Republican leaders on Thursday forcefully rejected suggestions that they were blocking an Iraq debate. By the end of the day, they trooped into a news conference to declare that they were "disappointed" that they were not allowed a vote on a resolution of their choosing. Scrambling for the moral and political high ground, the Republicans asserted that it was the Democrats — not they — who were freezing the debate.

Throughout the week, as the House debated the Iraq war from morning to night, many Senators came to the floor to complain that the upper chamber of Congress was "in real danger of becoming irrelevant," as Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., phrased it Thursday.

"I don't think we ought to be dominant over the House of Representatives," he said. "But I think we ought to be at least equal. What we have here is close to anarchy. We've been debating the debate all week."

In the Senate, Reid's announcement essentially called the bluff of Republicans who were increasingly unhappy with the stalemate and had threatened to vote against a motion to adjourn for the Presidents' Day recess. After a closed caucus with his fellow Democrats, Reid announced his decision for a Saturday vote.

Many Americans, of course, often have to work weekends. But the threat of a Saturday roll-call vote — attendance is taken, absences are noted — sent alarms across the Senate, particularly among those who hastily rearranged their presidential campaign schedules.