For nearly five years, Senate Republicans had blocked any bid to force a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. That changed this week.
Prospects for approving the bill have not changed: Similar measures failed by big margins in four separate votes last year, and President Bush has pledged to veto it.
But the sudden GOP willingness to have a public debate on the war points to a new confidence in Republican ranks that the war could yet be a plus for the party in November elections, especially in the presidential race.
"The highest number of votes the Feingold withdrawal proposal has received at any point in these four [previous] votes is 29 votes. It should be voted on, defeated once again, and it certainly will be," said Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell on Wednesday. "Now we've had six months or so of undeniable progress on all fronts."
Democratic leaders had planned to use this week's floor time to debate high-profile legislation on relief for Americans facing home foreclosures. "It is obvious to me what the game plan is: They want us to slow the Senate down from getting things done," Senator Reid said, after the 70-to-24 vote to take up the Iraq bill. "It is very clear that they are going to do everything they can to stop us from getting to the housing legislation, which the American people badly need."
Reid proposed limiting the war debate to two hours; Republicans held out for the full 30 hours provided in Senate rules.
"All the incentives have changed in a year. For Republicans, it's much better to debate Iraq than to debate the home mortgage crisis," says Julian Zelizer, a congressional historian at Princeton University in New Jersey. "There's a perception that the surge [of additional US troops last spring] worked, and it plays into the campaign theme that is certain to be central" in any presidential race.
GOP senators, many recently returned from visits to the region, are using the war debate to showcase what they see as shifts to the good in Iraq.
"A year ago this time, I quite honestly thought we were gong to lose this thing … because you could see over about a 2-1/2- to 3-year period it getting worse with each visit. Things have changed dramatically," says Sen. Lindsey Graham (R) of South Carolina, who returned Feb. 21 from his 10th visit to Iraq.
In 10 of 18 provinces, security has been handed over to Iraqi forces, he said. And after years of delay, major political benchmarks for the Iraqi government are being met, including a de-Baathification law, a provincial powers law, and a $48 billion budget for reconstruction. Iraqi oil production is up 50 percent over last year.
In response, Senator Feingold said passing legislation is no proof of political progress in Iraq.
"Yes, we have seen movement in the Iraqi parliament after four years. Passing a law is one thing; seeing it successfully implemented is another," he said Wednesday. "National reconciliation still looks far off. The passage of benchmark laws does not ensure society-wide reconciliation."
Democrats had expected to reopen debate over Iraq war deployments when the Senate took up Mr. Bush's next war-funding request, probably in April. The decision to allow a new vote on Feingold-Reid, which is expected to fail, fulfilled a pledge to Feingold during last year's debate over the defense authorization bill.
Unexpectedly facing a protracted war debate this week, Democrats are trying to refocus the debate on what kind of impact the war is having on the US economy – and on American families.
"The [Bush] administration did not anticipate the cost for our troops. The war has already cost over $490 billion – $1.5 trillion when you factor in all costs, $12 billion a month," says Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D) of Minnesota.
"We have to get this economy on the right track, and it means making a reckoning for that money that is spent in Iraq, to start bringing home some of our combat troops, to start being more responsible about this budget," she added in floor debate on Tuesday.
Speaking in opposition to the bill, Sen. Jim Webb (D) of Virginia said that he could not support cutting off funds. "But at the same time, I strongly disagree that withdrawal from Iraq is premature. With the right national leadership, we could have begun withdrawal from Iraq more than four years ago. What we have been engaged in is an occupation, not a war."
[Editor's note: The original version misstated the number of years Senate Republicans had blocked bids to force a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.]