Republican Senators left town last week wounded and deeply fractured over immigration reform and the Iraq War, but they are charting a strategy that they hope will get them off the defensive and back on the attack for the final four weeks of the summer session.
When they return from the weeklong July Fourth recess, GOP leaders are hoping that beyond coalescing around a new strategy on Iraq, they can mount an offensive against Democrats on firebrand issues such as taxes, spending and stalled judicial nominations.
“Those are issues we know, for the most part, Republicans will be united around,” said a GOP leadership aide. “Immigration split both parties in the Senate. Now what we’re seeing is each side come together on what they stand for to try to be united.”
Chief Deputy Minority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.) added that “what Republicans need to figure out is what unifies us, not what divides us.” That, he said, means looking to rally support from the electorate and within their own ranks by homing in on those issues that define who they are as a party, such as by calling for stronger fiscal discipline and insisting on up-or-down votes on key court nominees.
The first big test of GOP unity will come next week when the Senate takes up the Defense Department authorization bill. Democrats have put Republicans on notice that they will force more votes on whether to end combat operations in Iraq as part of that debate.
Thune said GOP leaders would be pushing to keep defections on Iraq to a minimum and will encourage their rank-and-file Members to wait until September, when even President Bush has said he may rethink his controversial troop “surge” strategy. Many Republicans have said they are waiting to hear a scheduled Sept. 15 report on the surge from Gen. David Petraeus, the U.S. commander in Iraq, before advocating any change in the direction of the war.
“There’s going to be a lot of pressure to not get too antsy about this, not to overreact to the things that the Democrats might put on the floor,” Thune said. He added, “I think most Republicans are sort of focused on [September]. They’re willing to give this strategy at least that amount of time.”
And even though Senate Foreign Relations ranking member Dick Lugar (R-Ind.) made headlines last week by urging the president to rethink his strategy in Iraq now rather than waiting until September, Lugar said he was unlikely to vote for any of the Democratic amendments to force redeployments out of Iraq or set timelines for withdrawal.
“I’m not certain that legislation does that,” Lugar said Thursday. “It may be that if you’re committed to a change in foreign policy, you try to work, as I’m attempting to do, with … the president or with others so the administration is able to make some announcements to make some changes that we [in Congress] can then support.”
He added, “All of these opportunities to offer benchmarks or deadlines are interesting as a way of venting emotion — I suppose, showing constituents that you’re alive and active — but maybe not consequential in terms of anything happening.”
One Senate GOP leadership aide suggested that Republicans might try to unify around a Lugar-like strategy of trying to gently coax the president into changing his tactics in Iraq. The aide noted that most Republicans are unlikely to support Democratic attempts to force the president’s hand.
But Sen. Olympia Snowe (R-Maine), who largely has supported the party position on Iraq during floor votes, said it might not be easy for GOP leaders to quash Republican defections on Iraq this month.
“I think it’s going to be infinitely more difficult to stem the tide of opposition and deepening concern about the ability to shift direction in Iraq,” she said. “These votes are going to be very challenging in July for many who, up to now, have been very supportive” of the president and the party’s position.
Snowe added, “Do you wait until you get a report [in September] that is, in all likelihood, not going to be positive?”
However, Thune indicated that the Democrats’ stance on the war could actually help unite Republicans and make the GOP appear to be taking a more reasoned, coordinated approach.
“Democrats are going to try to divide us on Iraq, but even there, they run the risk of going too far to the left,” Thune argued. “If the Democrats appear to be jerking funding away from the troops, then that will provide us an opportunity for contrast.”
In preparation for drawing that contrast, Senate Republican Conference Chairman Jon Kyl (Ariz.) is organizing a July 9 meeting between Republican Senators and conservative think tanks to talk about defense and national security issues.
Conference spokesman Ryan Loskarn said the meeting would help Republicans prepare for the floor fight to come. “Democrats will try to use the Defense authorization bill to manipulate national security policy,” he said. “They’re going to use this bill to score points with the rabid anti-military crowd and that will backfire in a big way.”
While their attempts at unity on Iraq may end up being a mixed bag, Senate Republicans have a much better shot at seeing eye-to-eye in the debate over spending bills that are expected to come to the floor in July. That’s because they believe the Democrats’ decision to spend $22 billion more than the president requested will provide them with an opportunity to play their trademark fiscal conservatism card.
GOP leadership aides already have begun meeting across the Capitol to coordinate their campaigns against the Democrats’ spending plans. Republican House Members and Senators alike also hope to use the spending measures to bolster a message that Democrats are doing little to ease tax burdens on American families.
Republicans also will use the debate surrounding appropriations bills to ramp up arguments to abandon pork-barrel earmarks, while once again criticizing the Democrats’ fiscal 2008 budget resolution as being too bloated and leading to certain tax increases.
Beyond spending, GOP Senators are looking to resurrect what they see as one of their most successful rallying points — a call for floor votes on Bush’s circuit court appointees. Republicans already have been laying the groundwork for what could become one of the most vocal and visceral partisan battles of the summer, over the stalled nomination of Leslie Southwick to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
If Southwick’s appointment dies on the vine, Republican leadership sources say they expect key GOP Senators to use procedural tactics to slow down Democratic initiatives and dust off a message that the Democrats are dragging their feet to install qualified justices to the bench. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) earlier threatened to hold up business if Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) fails to clear an average of one circuit court nominee through the chamber each month.
Southwick’s confirmation is currently on pause in the Judiciary Committee amid a firestorm of criticism from left-leaning organizations and Democratic Senators who have raised concerns about his record on civil and human rights. An unnamed Republican Senator asked for the delay on a committee vote for Southwick — a move to give GOP supporters more time to drum up support for his confirmation.
Chief among the Southwick backers is Judiciary ranking member Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who met with Southwick late last week and is working to persuade enough of his committee colleagues to forward the nomination to the full Senate for consideration. Specter said Friday that after reviewing the nominee’s record — which includes some 6,500 rulings over a dozen years on the bench — “there’s absolutely no reason not to confirm Judge Southwick.”
“I think that it’s come to a point where it’s a matter of basic fairness, fundamental fairness, for Southwick,” Specter said. “It’s an issue of fundamental fairness for the minority. Democrats want to name the circuit judge and the Constitution gives that authority to the president.”
Asked if the fight over Southwick could prompt a repeat of the partisan brawl over Bush’s judicial picks that stymied the chamber last Congress, Specter said: “I think we may well head there. I hate to see that happen. It would not only tie up the work of the committee but also of the Senate.”
At least for now, however, Democrats don’t appear to be budging. And Judiciary Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) said late last week that as it currently stands Southwick’s nomination wouldn’t make the cut.
“He’d lose now,” Leahy asserted. “That’s probably why they want more time.”