A nonbinding resolution that defies President Bush's plan to send more troops to Iraq is now on its way to the Senate floor.
That sets the stage for a gut-wrenching debate over a war which, as even its staunchest supporters admit, has gone badly.
The resolution rejecting a troop buildup was approved Thursday in a vote by the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Last night, a second resolution opposing a troop increase was introduced by Sen. John Warner, the Virginia Republican.
What the Foreign Relations panel approved was, in effect, a vote of "no confidence" in the president's handling of the Iraq war.
The resolution says it's "not in the country's national interest" to increase the number of U.S. troops in Iraq, despite President Bush's State of the Union plea to give his Iraq plan a chance.
Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware, the committee's Democratic chairman, insisted the measure is in the president's best interests:
"Our resolution of disapproval is not — I emphasize not — an attempt to embarrass the president," Biden said. "It is not an attempt to demonstrate isolation. What it is, it's an attempt to save the president from making a signficant mistake."
But Biden had a hard time getting the panel's top Republican, Sen. Richard Lugar, to back the resolution, even though Lugar also opposes a troop buildup. Lugar maintained the sharply worded resolution would only strain relations further with the Bush administration and make it harder to get information about the war.
"I know my friends will say that intense oversight would not be precluded by the passage of a nonbinding resolution," Lugar said. "But I remain concerned that our ability to be constructive and work with the president and his team will be circumscribed by a political result that will magnify our differences."
Nebraska Sen. Chuck Hagel — the only Republican sponsoring the resolution — said voting for it was really a question of political courage.
"I think all 100 senators ought to be on the line on this," Hagel said. "What do you believe, what are you willing to support, what do you think? Why were you elected? If you wanted a safe job, go sell shoes."
"This is a tough business," Hagel conceded. "But is it any tougher, us having to take a tough vote, express ourselves, and having the courage to step up, than what we're asking our young men and women to do? I don't think so."
For several Democrats on the committee, the nonbinding resolution falls short of what's needed. Sen. Russ Feingold of Wisconsin said it's time Congress used its power of the purse to cut off funding for the war.
"This is not a time for legislative nuancing, this is not a time for trying to forge a compromise that everybody can be a part of," Feingold said. "This is a time to stop the needless deaths of American troops in Iraq."
In the end, the vote tally approving the resolution was 12-9, the one Republican vote in favor coming from Hagel.
Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman sought to justify voting against it, even though he's on record as opposing a troop buildup.
"Our patience is wearing thin, certainly in the public and the Congress, but I'm not prepared to have a resolution which would say we're going to disregard — and that's the way I read this resolution, disregard — the advice of the commanders on the ground when they say they need something, which may even be an increase in a given area."
Coleman and other Republicans who oppose the president's Iraq plan have rallied around the resolution sponsored by Warner. Wednesday night on the Senate floor, Warner offered milder language that essentially conveys the same idea as the Foreign Policy committee's statement: sending more troops to Baghdad is a bad idea.
"So much of the rhetoric surrounding that resolution, it was disturbing to many people, and that gave rise to the efforts that we have put forth, culminating in placing this document into the record tonight," Warner said. "And I do hope that others will consider joining us because it's important to show unity, bipartisanship here in the Congress."
Four Republicans and six Democrats are now co-sponsoring Warner's resolution, and Warner predicted it will pick up many more sponsors in coming days.
Biden said he is willing to adopt some of the language in Warner's measure, in an effort to pick up more bipartisan support.
Some of President Bush's allies have talked of putting a resolution of their own on the Senate floor for a vote.
To varying degrees, it seems most senators, both Democrats and Republicans, want to distance themselves from the Bush administration's high-stakes bet that a troop surge will turn things around in Baghdad.
Just how they demonstrate that, and how many of their colleagues join them, may get decided in the floor debate that is due to begin next week.