The metal cots outside the Senate chamber were folded away and the pizza cartons carted away. A rare all-night session leading to Wednesday's key vote about withdrawing troops from Iraq provided high drama on Capitol Hill.
Never mind that the amendment went down to certain defeat. Or that the legislative marathon changed only a single vote in the Senate. Washington's political theater is part of a deliberate political strategy aimed at living rooms across America. By presenting the choice over the future of the Iraq war in the starkest possible terms, Democrats hope to convince Americans of the need to change course and ratchet up the political pressure on Republican lawmakers supporting President Bush.
"The goal of Democrats was clear: to put Republicans on record on where they stand on an unpopular war and to keep Iraq in the news, which is not good for the Bush administration," says Julian Zelizer, a professor of history and public affairs at Princeton University. "On these two levels, they were successful, even if no new legislation will come out of it. Democrats want Iraq to be for President Bush what Vietnam became for President Johnson: an all-consuming issue, where nothing else can be discussed."
Democrats plan similar votes in the House to force Republicans to express publicly views on a war that has lost the support of most Americans.
Indeed, polls suggest that Americans are frustrated with Mr. Bush's "surge" strategy and favor a draw down of forces. According to a Gallup Poll last week, 71 percent favor a proposal to remove almost all US troops from Iraq by April 2008, leaving a limited number of troops for counterterror efforts. But there remains a partisan divide. The same poll found that 54 percent of Republicans opposed the idea. It's this divide that Congress appears to be reflecting. While most lawmakers oppose the administration's current strategy, they have not come to a consensus over the alternative.
For weeks leading up to Wednesday's vote, Senate Republicans, one by one, have been offering alternative approaches to that proposed by the White House. On June 25, Sen. Richard Lugar of Indiana stunned many of his colleagues by declring on the floor of the Senate that "our course in Iraq has lost contact with our vital national security interests in the Middle East and beyond."
Last week, Senator Lugar and John Warner (R) of Virginia, the top Republican on the Senate Armed Services Committee, proposed an amendment that would require the White House to produce plans by October to shift US forces out of a combat role in Iraq. That new decision point, beginning with a September report by Army Gen. David Petraeus, the US commander in Iraq, figured in comments from many GOP senators this week.
It's important to "be fair to Petraeus" and wait until September to vote for changes in the nation's policy on Iraq, said Sen. Larry Craig (R) of Idaho on Wednesday. "At that time, I am prepared to make decisions that are different than those today, if the facts so demonstrate."
At issue Wednesday was whether the Senate would move to a vote on an amendment to set a timetable to reduce the number of US troops in Iraq – to begin 120 days after enactment and to be completed by April 30, 2008. The vote failed 52-47.
Despite Republicans' doubts about the current Iraq strategy, all but four rallied to block a vote on the Reed-Levin amendment. Sen. Susan Collins (R) of Maine was the lone Republican to switch sides on this vote. She joined GOP Sens. Gordon Smith of Oregon, Chuck Hagel of Nebraska, and Olympia Snowe of Maine, who had previously announced support of the amendment.
Outside the Capitol, hundreds of anti-war activists rallied Tuesday evening to help shine a light on Senate activities.
"The vote showed to the American people that even though Republicans have been talking the talk, they haven't been walking the walk," says Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.org Political Action. "They're still supporting Bush."
Antiwar activists applaud the strategy.
"There was enormous pressure on Susan Collins," says Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War. "The real test of this is not going to be on the floor of the Senate, or the Capitol building. But it will be in these states. That's where this war will be decided."
"It's a double-barreled approach: Congressional leaders have committed to keep the debate and voting going on this issue, and we are committed to keeping the heat up in these congressional districts," said Andrews.
House Democrats say they are planning more votes on the war next week, in a bid to pressure wavering Republican House members.
"We will likely be having votes on the war next week," says Brendan Daley, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. These could include legislation to ban permanent bases in Iraq or to deauthorize the use of force in Iraq. "It's something we're deciding now," he says.
Meanwhile, on the Senate side, Senate majority leader Harry Reid pulled the $648.8 billion defense authorization bill from the floor, which is likely to come back for a vote after the August recess. "We'll come back to this bill as soon as it's clear we can make real progress," he says.
Senate Republican leaders denounced the majority leader's decision to take the bill off the floor.
"We are abandoning the men and women in the military if we don't take this bill back up and pass it, conference with the House, and have it signed by the president of the United States, as we have for the past 45 years," said Sen. John McCain (R) of Arizona, in a briefing after the vote.
"Harry Reid is going to have to gain his support incrementally," says Ross Baker, a political scientist at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, N.J.