From Elizabeth Wilner, Mark Murray, and Huma Zaidi
For the first time, those members of the Senate who have designs on the presidency must consider changing their campaign schedules in order to be in Washington for a symbolically important vote -- in this case, a Saturday afternoon vote on whether or not to end the Republican filibuster of the debate over a US troop increase in Iraq. (Frustrated lawmaker/candidates can't complain, though, since it's not like Democratic leaders have rigidly adhered to their pledged five-day work week.)
Democrats failed to get 60 votes last week when their leadership tried to move ahead with the debate and don't necessarily have 60 lined up now, so it probably wouldn't be cool for some of their ranks to be missing at 1:45 pm tomorrow because they're off running for the White House. Sen. Joe Biden has changed his travel plans and will zig-zag between Iowa and Washington. Sen. Hillary Clinton will fly to and from New Hampshire. Sens. Chris Dodd and Barack Obama are slated to be in South Carolina tomorrow and have not announced any schedule changes at this writing.
As NBC's Doug Adams notes, if Democrats again fail to get the required 60 votes, they'll aim for headlines in the Sunday papers such as "Republicans continue to block debate on Iraq." Minority Leader Mitch McConnell says he still plans to try to block it, despite the PR hit his party took for being "obstructionist" when they stalled debate last week. NBC's Ken Strickland reports that McConnell is insisting that the debate also include a vote on whether to cut off troop funding, persisting with his argument that if Democrats are going to hold a vote that will show divisions within the GOP caucus, there should also be a vote to show divisions among Democrats. But after exchanging various offers, McConnell and Majority Leader Harry Reid again failed to come to terms. As a result, Republicans are again using Senate rules to require 60 votes rather than a simple majority.
The House is expected to pass the non-binding resolution today with the help of at least a couple dozen Republicans, and Senate Democrats have adopted the House version of the resolution as their own, jettisoning GOP Sen. John Warner's version, Adams reports. Whereas last week virtually all Senate Republicans voted against starting the debate, after getting accused of voting against their own resolution, some of those Republicans are hinting they'll join Democrats this time around. Strickland reports that Warner himself says he's inclined to vote with Democrats, and some of his GOP co-sponsors may follow suit.
Senate Democrats also are offering to hold a vote on Sen. John McCain's resolution endorsing the troop increase and setting up benchmarks for the Iraqi government to meet. McCain is scheduled to be in Iowa tomorrow, and a spokesman says that at this writing, there's no plan to change that. Fellow presidential contender Sen. Sam Brownback (R), who opposes the troop increase, is supposed to be attending the National Religious Broadcasters convention in Orlando.
That five-day convention begins today and will be attended by thousands of pastors, radio hosts, and other religious communicators, plus a few Republican presidential candidates. Former Gov. Mitt Romney will hold private meetings there from Friday to Sunday, while McCain will attend a closed-press meet-and-greet on Monday that will feature Jerry Falwell (whom he once called an agent of intolerance, but he then gave the commencement address at Falwell's Liberty University last year). Former Mayor Rudy Giuliani reportedly will not attend, neither will former Gov. Mike Huckabee.
In recent elections, religious conservatives have been the heart and soul of the Republican party, and they unquestionably make up a large portion of those who will vote in the GOP primaries. Yet as we and others have written, all three of the early frontrunners for the nomination have problems with these voters. McCain has never been identified as a member of their group ("I would not vote for John McCain under any circumstances," evangelical leader James Dobson has said); Romney, an observant Mormon, doesn't have a consistent record on abortion, gay rights, and stem-cell research; and the thrice-married Giuliani supports abortion rights and embryonic stem-cell research.