Regardless of the spin and counter-spin around the various Iraq reports, a key domestic political fact - perhaps the most fundamental fact - is once again being buried in the debate.It only takes 51 Senators to end the Iraq war, regardless of how many are prepared to cut off funding.
It is obviously true, as many have pointed out, that 51 Senators could cut off funding for the war, simply by not voting to approve it. But to make funding the sole focus significantly understates the case, and contributes to the utterly false and harmful notion that cutting off funding is the only thing Senators can do.
It was clear in previous Senate votes that there were not 51 Senators who were willing to stand firm on any position in effective opposition to the President. There were not 51 Senators willing to stand firm on a timetable for withdrawal, even stated as a goal. There were not 51 Senators willing to stand firm on a popular prohibition against forcing soldiers to serve longer deployments than they spend at home - a prohibition that all sides agreed would force troop withdrawals.
It's true that under current Senate rules, on a free-standing bill, 60 votes would be needed on an Iraq bill to overcome a filibuster threat. (Why we tolerate that only 51 Senate votes are needed to confirm nominees to the Supreme Court who oppose fundamental civil rights protections for all Americans, but 60 Senate votes are needed to pass free-standing legislation to end the Iraq war, is a question that deserves a great deal of further scrutiny.) But as we saw on the fight over the supplemental, only 51 votes are needed to attach withdrawal language to legislation that continues to fund the war.
With less than 60 votes, the Senate attached a timetable for withdrawal. The President, as expected, vetoed the legislation. Then the Senate backed down.
There was no legal or constitutional reason for the Senate to back down. It was a political decision. As a legal matter, the outcome of a confrontation where the Senate and the President agree to fund something, but don't agree on the legislative language to go along with the funding, is undetermined. It's just a question of who blinks first. The Senate could have agreed to continue funding on a temporary basis while the confrontation continued - that's what the House did - but 51 Senators didn't have the stomach for that either.
Majority Leader Reid explained the Senate's climbdown by saying that he did not have a real Democratic majority on Iraq. The nominal partisan breakdown is 51-49. But with Joe Lieberman voting with the President on Iraq, and Tim Johnson in recovery, Reid entered the confrontation with 49 Democratic votes.
But now Tim Johnson is back. That makes 50. The Senate Democrats - if they stick together - just need one Republican to stay with them to have a majority. Chuck Hagel - who now has a completely free hand, since he's not running for any office - and Gordon Smith have voted with the Democrats on Iraq in the past. Other Republicans have signaled that they may be prepared to do so. And for each additional Republican, they need one less nominal Democrat (e.g. Ben Nelson.)
In July, Reid refused to bring a bipartisan compromise measure to the floor, on the theory that Republicans would be pressured during the recess to support a timetable for withdrawal.
Why then should this scenario not be allowed to play out? Why should there not be a clean Senate vote on a timetable for withdrawal and other provisions that could effectively constrain the President? In the worst case, we would see an effective repeat of past Senate votes, with a majority supporting, but not sticking to, constraining measures, after which Reid could, if he wants, negotiate a "bipartisan compromise" that would almost surely be less binding. But there is no reason for such a compromise to be the focus of discussion now, when we have yet to see the clean Senate votes on more binding measures that were promised in July. Let the Senate be counted. We have a right to see who the Senators are who are standing in the way of ending the war.
Robert Naiman is Senior Policy Analyst and National Coordinator at Just Foreign Policy.