WASHINGTON — The most serious congressional challenge to President Bush's Iraq war strategy stalled Monday when Senate Republicans blocked consideration of a resolution criticizing his plan to boost troop levels.
Leaders from both parties continued to work on a compromise that would allow Senate Democrats to bring the resolution up again. But the GOP gambit dealt a setback to the nascent campaign to take on the Bush administration's management of the war. It also may mean that leadership in challenging Bush may shift to House Democrats.
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-San Francisco) and other senior House lawmakers have said they may bring up their own resolution opposing the White House's latest war plan as soon as next week.
Senate Republicans, meanwhile, could be taking a major political risk in casting themselves as the barrier to a war debate that American voters have indicated they want Congress to engage in, according to political observers.
"We are witness to the spectacle of a White House and Republican senators unwilling to even engage in a debate on a war that claims at least one American life every day," said Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) in one of a series of impassioned floor speeches by lawmakers from both parties.
Minority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky guided a nearly unified GOP caucus in opposition to a procedural vote to allow formal debate on the Iraq resolution.
Needing 60 votes to overcome the GOP blockade, Democrats -- who cling to a narrow majority in the Senate -- could muster only 50. The final vote was 49 to 47, as Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) voted no in a move that allows him to bring the issue back up. Vermont independent Bernard Sanders voted yes.
McConnell accused the Democratic majority of blocking consideration of Republican alternatives to the resolution. "We are, in effect, being denied a fair process for this extremely important debate," he said.
But Democratic leaders were quick Monday to tag their GOP opponents as stooges for a White House that has been desperately trying to avoid an embarrassing rebuke from Capitol Hill.
The Democratic leaders had, until Monday, promoted their work with a handful of GOP lawmakers critical of the president's war plan. And support had appeared to be building for a nonbinding measure sponsored by Sen. John W. Warner (R-Va.) that says the Senate "disagrees" with the planned troop increase.
Crafted to attract support from Democrats and Republicans, the carefully worded resolution avoids the confrontational language often used by Democratic lawmakers who have attacked the White House.
The president already has started to increase the troop level by 21,500 from the approximately 135,000 who were in Iraq when he announced his plan.
Last week, Warner and his co-authors amended the eight-page resolution to express opposition to any cut in funds for troops, which many GOP lawmakers have expressed concern about. The measure won the support of seven Republican senators, as well as a majority of Democrats.
But as its authors labored to persuade centrist Republicans to join them, GOP leaders allied with the president battled back.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- a leading supporter of the Bush Iraq plan -- last week proposed a resolution that backed the new Iraq strategy, although it also expressed the need for the Iraqi government to meet certain benchmarks that it has long failed to achieve.
And Sen. Judd Gregg (R-N.H.) offered a short resolution opposing any funding limits for American troops in the field.
Reid said Monday that Democrats were willing to consider all three, as long as each resolution only required a simple majority to pass. Such an agreement would almost guarantee that the Warner measure criticizing the Bush plan would pass, dealing a major defeat to the White House.
McConnell countered that all three should require 60 votes, an arrangement that would have increased the likelihood that only the Gregg measure -- the least controversial of the three -- would pass. The Republican leader and his lieutenants argued that the 60-vote threshold was customary for a controversial issue.
"It is the ordinary, not the extraordinary," McConnell said. The Senate's rules give the minority party the ability to filibuster legislation, a move that requires 60 votes to overcome.
Other opponents of the Warner measure made no secret of their distaste with the direction he and other Iraq war critics want to take the Senate.
"I don't think we should formalize our concerns," Gregg said Monday, arguing that it is not the role of Congress to challenge a president's role as commander in chief during wartime.
Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-Conn.), a former Democrat who still caucuses with the party but is backing the Bush Iraq strategy, urged his colleagues to forgo the Warner measure. "This resolution is not about Congress taking responsibility. It is the opposite. This is a resolution of irresolution," Lieberman said, warning that it would "discourage our troops."