If you watched C-SPAN coverage of a weekend Senate vote on the nonbinding Iraq war resolution, you might have seen a half dozen U.S. senators delivering impassioned speeches against the troop surge proposal. If you read the New York Times story, you'd learn that while the GOP blocked the resolution, seven Republicans crossed ranks, allowing Senate Democrats to claim a symbolic victory in the debate about Iraq.
But the view from the Senate galleries during the rare Saturday session told a bigger story.
The session, which interrupted the Presidents Day recess specifically for a vote on Iraq, opened at noon. An hour later, there were fewer than 10 U.S. senators on the floor. Sens. Joe Biden (D-Del.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.), and Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) were indeed preaching the futility of the Iraq War-but only to the C-SPAN cameras.
Outside the Capitol, the Senate gallery line trailed to the south edge of the complex, as tourists and residents bundled against freezing temperatures Feb. 17 to wait to pass security and watch the proceedings. "There's Biden," someone shouted, as an ambiguous figure in a dark suit ducked out of a car and into the building.
The holiday atmosphere carried into the Senate chamber, where spectators packed the open galleries. After all, the vote represented a definitive moment, an opportunity for the Senate to fully articulate its opposition to continuing to send troops to fight in Iraq. "We're determined to give our troops and the American people the debate they deserve," Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said when he scheduled the Saturday vote.
A day earlier, the House passed an identical resolution 246-182, declaring, "Congress disapproves of the decision of President George W. Bush announced on Jan. 10, 2007, to deploy more than 20,000 additional United States combat troops to Iraq." Because both House and Senate measures are nonbinding, they are not expected to affect troop levels or funding per se.
In the Senate, the 56-34 cloture vote fell short of the 60 votes required for the resolution to proceed. The seven Republican defections-including possible White House hopeful and Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel-allowed Democrats to claim victory, anyway, arguing that a majority of the Senate had now publicly opposed the surge. Five of those seven Republican senators face reelection in 2008.
The timing of the weekend session forced a growing field of Senate presidential candidates to choose between early-season campaign stops in crucial primary states and a high-profile Iraq vote. Sen. Hillary Clinton (D-N.Y.) flew to New Hampshire for a morning campaign event and back to Washington for the vote, where she sat quietly in the back row of the chamber.
Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) flew from South Carolina to Washington, and then to a Richmond, Va., dinner that evening. Obama spent time smiling, chatting, and shoulder-grabbing his colleagues during the vote.
Among the 10 senators who skipped the Saturday session, Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) was notably absent. McCain, who elected to campaign in Iowa on Saturday instead, dismissed the Senate vote as a "meaningless" political stunt.
After the cloture vote failed, Majority Leader Reid announced that he would not bring up the resolution again. Instead, both sides of the aisle are preparing for a showdown over Iraq War funding when Congress returns from a week-long recess.
By late afternoon, the senators dispersed and the gallery thinned-but outside the Capitol, there were still people waiting in line to hear the debate about Iraq.