General David Petraeus received a more skeptical reception from Republican Senators than had been expected, but that still won’t change the basic math that has sustained the Iraq war for more than four years.
To the surprise of absolutely no one, President Bush is set to embrace his general’s long-awaited report, which calls for a gradual and conditional return to pre-surge troop levels—in essence, where things stood when voters registered their disapproval last November—by the middle of next year, with no adjustment of the overall U.S. mission in Iraq. Congressional Democrats will now try to cobble together enough votes to impose a different plan on the President—something they’ve already tried and failed to do twice this year.
There’s no reason to believe the third time will be a charm.
Start with the Senate, where the underwhelmed response of some Republicans to General Petraeus’ assessment suggests an opportunity for Democrats. Back in July, an effort to force a redeployment of most troops by April 2008 died when Democrats fell seven votes short of the 60 they needed to circumvent a G.O.P. filibuster threat and force a vote. Democrats have gained at least one vote since then, with South Dakota’s Tim Johnson at last returning after his December cerebral hemorrhage. But that still leaves them six votes shy of being able to force a vote—and all six of those votes will have to come from Republicans, since Democrats all voted together in July.
It is possible, in theory, that Democrats could win a handful of converts in the wake of General Petraeus’ testimony. Virginia’s John Warner, for instance, has expressed grave concerns about the war while staunchly maintaining that only the President—and not Congress—should make strategic decisions. But he seemed at his wit’s end Tuesday when he elicited an “I don’t know” from General Petraeus to the question of whether the mission in Iraq, even if successful, will make Americans any safer. Other Republicans who’ve previously stood with the White House may be similarly unnerved. Richard Lugar of Indiana has long afforded Mr. Bush the same deference Mr. Warner has, but said on Tuesday that “it is not enough for the administration to counsel patience until the next milestone or the next report.” Minnesota’s Norm Coleman and New Hampshire’s John Sununu are both facing re-elections in blue states next year. Mr. Coleman even told the general on Tuesday that he hoped for “a little something more” than the modest, unavoidable troop cuts he was advocating. Most notably, Elizabeth Dole, who hasn’t previously factored into the discussion of potential G.O.P. defectors, expressed an openness to “action-forcing measures.”
But whether those words will translate into support for legislation mandating a troop redeployment is questionable. This would hardly be the first time this year Republicans have mouthed skepticism only to side with Mr. Bush in the end. And even if lightning strikes and the next few days produce the magic 60 votes for Democrats, it still won’t matter a lick. The House, where filibusters don’t exist, would pass companion legislation and it would be promptly met with a presidential veto.
To overcome that, Democrats would need super-majorities in both chambers – 290 votes in the House and 67 in the Senate. And we’ve been down that road before, back in late April and early May, when the House, on a 218-208 vote, passed its first bill mandating a troop redeployment by April 2008.
Senate Republicans decided not to exercise their filibuster power, freeing the same bill to clear the Senate on a 51-46 vote. Mr. Bush then vetoed it, and it officially died when House Democrats mustered a mere 222 votes (only two of them from Republicans) for their failed override attempt. The math of the unwieldy House can be tougher to figure than that of the Senate, but it’s inconceivable that House Democrats have picked up 68 additional votes since then. In fact, there have been only two reported defections in the House since the spring—and they cancel each other out: Democrat Brian Baird of Washington now opposes the creation of a withdrawal timetable, while Republican Jim Walsh, who barely survived his 2006 re-election effort in upstate New York, endorsed the idea this week.
And imagining a scenario in which Senate Democrats secure 67 votes is even more absurd, requiring as it would the wildly implausible defections of safe-seat Republicans who long ago dug their heels in against any Democratic maneuvering on Iraq.