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In January, Sen. Chuck Hagel (R-NE) spoke about a resolution opposing President Bush's proposed troop increase in Iraq as Joe Biden (D-DE) and Sen. Carl Levin (D-MI) looked on.
If you want to know what turned the Senate around on the most important issue of our day — the war in Iraq — take a look at the state in the center of the map. The mood of the Senate may be said to have turned on the fulcrum of Nebraska.
Nebraska's senior Sen. Chuck Hagel was one of just two Republicans supporting a timetable for U.S. troop withdrawal from Iraq. (Gordon Smith of Oregon was the other.) But Hagel has long been an outspoken critic of Bush administration policy in Iraq, so this vote was not unexpected.
Just as significant was the pro-timetable vote of Nebraska's Democratic Senator Ben Nelson, who had announced earlier in the day that he would stand with his party leaders on this one. Nelson has been a skeptic on timetables, and functions almost as an independent on many issues, particular national security.
Had either Hagel or Nelson gone the other way (as did Democrat Mark Pryor of Arkansas and independent Democrat Joe Lieberman of Connecticut), the vote on the timetable would have been 49 to 49. And that tie would have been broken by Vice President Dick Cheney in favor of the White House.
As it was, the Democrats prevailed 50-48. The funding bill will go to President Bush sometime next month with all the money he requested and some form of timetable for bringing the U.S. combat mission in Iraq to an end. That will set up a confrontation between the branches to be resolved at some future point. But for now, it is notable that both chambers of Congress are voting for what amounts to a scheduled end to the U.S. combat mission in Iraq.
Some may be surprised to see the critical votes on this issue cast by two senators from Nebraska, known for being one of the most conservative states in the nation. Nebraska has voted Republican in every presidential election of the last 70 years save one, and it regularly sends GOP-heavy delegations to Congress.
But Nebraska is also a state with a wide independent streak, where the legislature is elected without reference to party label. This is also a part of the country endowed with a deep suspicion of war. The one time it rejected a Republican nominee for president after 1936 was in 1964, when the GOP backed Barry Goldwater and his bellicose talk about Vietnam (a militant policy later carried out by the Democrat who beat him that year, Lyndon Johnson).
Nearly three years ago, in the summer of 2004, Nebraska produced one of the first Republican defections on Iraq. Veteran Doug Bereuter, announcing his retirement after 16 years in Congress, said little about his reasons for going in Washington. But he sent a letter to his local paper in Lincoln and sent copies of it to constituents who wrote to inquire.
It was all about Iraq.
"Was the pre-emptive military strike to remove Saddam in America's best interest?" Bereuter asked. "I've reached the conclusion, retrospectively, now that the inadequate intelligence and faulty conclusions are being revealed, that all things being considered, it was a mistake to launch that military action, especially without a broad and engaged international coalition."
The Congressman's letter continued: "The cost in casualties is already large and growing, and the immediate and long-term financial costs are incredible. Our country's reputation around the world has never been lower and our alliances are weakened. From the beginning of the conflict it was doubtful that we for long would be seen as liberators, but instead increasingly as an occupying force."
Bereuter's assessment seems most prescient in retrospect. His 2004 letter also anticipated where the debate would be 30 months later, as he concluded with this wistful sentence: "Now we are immersed in a dangerous, costly mess and there is no easy and quick way to end our responsibilities in Iraq without creating bigger future problems in the region and, in general, in the Muslim world."
That same concern was raised again in this week's Senate debate on the timetable for withdrawal from Iraq. How can we leave and not finish what we have begun?
The Senate's answer came in the timetable vote, with the support of Nebraska's Nelson and Hagel. The Senate said it's time to wind down the U.S. combat role and seek other ways to discharge what Bereuter called "our responsibilities."
So the funding bill will go to President Bush sometime next month with all the money he requested plus some form of timetable for bringing the U.S. combat mission in Iraq to an end. The exact terms of that timetable remain to be negotiated with the House, which voted earlier this month for a combat-pullout deadline of August 31, 2008. The Senate is asking that the combat troops be out five months sooner than that, but the Senate version is also non-binding.
President Bush has renewed his vow to veto any funding bill with any timetable. No one doubts he will and no one thinks the Congress will have the votes to override.
But that's fine by the Democratic leadership in both chambers just now. They see it as their job to send the president bills that express the spirit of the midterm elections of November 2006. Voters disillusioned with the war helped install new Democratic majorities in both chambers. And while Democrats differ on how to deal with Iraq, they surely know they owe those voters some kind of change in direction.
This week, the Senate marked that change in direction with a tip of the hat to the state of Nebraska.