WASHINGTON -- Democrats pushed the Senate toward an attention-grabbing, all-night session last night to dramatize opposition to the Iraq war, but conceded they were unlikely to gain the votes needed to advance troop withdrawal legislation blocked by Republicans.
"Our enemies aren't threatened by talk-a-thons, and our troops deserve better than publicity stunts," said Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader.
McConnell and many other Republicans favor waiting until September before considering any changes to the Bush administration's current policy. They have vowed to block a final vote on the Democrats' attempt to require a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days.
"We have no alternative except to keep them in session to explain their obstruction," said Senator Harry Reid of Nevada, the majority leader.
So far, the legislation has drawn the support of three Republicans, Senators Gordon Smith of Oregon, Olympia Snowe of Maine, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska.
With a test vote set for today -- capping a day and night of debate -- Democratic officials conceded they were likely to get 52 or 53 votes at most. Sixty votes would be needed to force a final vote on the measure.
While the issue was momentous -- a war more than four years in duration, costing the lives of more than 3,600 US troops -- the proceedings were thick with politics.
MoveOn.org, the antiwar group, announced plans for more than 130 events around the country to coincide with the Senate debate, part of an effort to pressure Republicans into allowing a final vote on the legislation. A candlelight vigil and rally across the street from the Capitol was prominent among them, with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Democrat of California, expected to attend.
Inside the Capitol, the session shaped up as the Senate's first all-nighter since 2003. Then, as now, the Senate staff wheeled about a dozen cots into a room near the chamber for any lawmakers needing them.
But the political roles were reversed. Four years ago, Republicans demanded votes on Bush's judicial nominees, and Democrats filibustered to avoid certain confirmation of several conservative appointees.
Then, Reid labeled the Republican-led all night-session a "circus," while other Democrats stoutly defended their right to set a 60-vote threshold for confirmation.
And then, McConnell talked critically of "unprecedented filibusters of President Bush's nominees" by Democrats, while other Republicans said they simply wanted an "up or down vote" on judicial appointments.
"Will the all-night session change any votes? I hope so," Reid said at midafternoon, pointedly stopping well short of a prediction that it would.
Smith and Snowe appeared with Democratic supporters of the legislation at a news conference.
"We are at the crossroads of hope and reality, and the time has come to address reality," said Snowe, who said the Iraqi government was guilty of "serial intransigence" when it came to trying to solve the country's political problems.
Smith, who is seeking reelection next year, said Iraqis appear focused on "revenge, not reconciliation," and that the administration needs to change its approach. "The American mission is to make sure that Iraq doesn't fall into the hands of Al Qaeda," not referee a civil war, he said.
The legislation would require a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days, to be completed by April 2008. The measure envisions leaving an undetermined number of troops behind, their mission limited to counterterrorism against Al Qaeda and other groups, protecting US assets, and training Iraqi troops.
There are currently an estimated 158,000 US personnel in Iraq.
While most Republicans have resisted the withdrawal bill, unhappiness with Bush's policy has been growing within the GOP ranks.
Senators John Warner of Virginia and Richard Lugar of Indiana, both senior Republicans with long experience in military and foreign policy, last week proposed legislation to require Bush to submit a new strategy by Oct. 16. It would focus on protecting Iraqi borders, targeting terrorists, protecting US assets, and training Iraqi forces.