Dwell time

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Dwell time

If you had to cast Virginia’s U.S. Senate delegation as the leads in a Hollywood buddy cop movie, the dynamic duo of Jim Webb and John Warner would seem like a pretty good match. Republican and Democrat, sure, but with a curmudgeonly, oil-and-vinegar chemistry that brings to mind the best the genre has to offer: Riggs & Murtaugh, Cates & Hammond, Tango & Cash…you know, the classics. In fact, from the moment that Senator Webb hit the Hill, the brusque ex-marine (and general-issue hard-ass) seemed a much better fit for John Warner than his predecessor George Allen, whose dim-witted antics were much closer to the level of, say, Turner & Hooch.

As recently as early September, Webb & Warner were still thick as thieves, presenting a united front when President Bush ignored their joint recommendations and nominated a Federalist Society conservative to Virginia’s 4th circuit court of appeals. While Webb talked up the pair’s “good faith, bipartisan effort” to reach consensus, Warner issued a statement declaring “I steadfastly remain committed to the recommendations stated in my joint letter with Senator Webb.” (Rumors that the original draft ended with Warner sighing “I’m too old for this shit” could not be confirmed by press time.)

Senator Jim Webb’s so-called “dwell time” amendment, which would require soldiers to receive the same amount of time off as they spend on active deployment, took the “buddy” out of the buddy movie thing Webb and John Warner had going.

Even on an issue as contentious as the war in Iraq, Virginia’s crotchety congressional duo has, until recently, done a remarkable job of projecting comity and consensus on this incredibly divisive issue. Although Webb (whose son just returned from active duty in Iraq) has been far more aggressive in his attempts to  withdraw troops from the region, Warner has generally supported his colleague’s efforts—rhetorically, at least. But all that came to a crashing end on September 19, when Warner very publicly kneecapped Webb’s attempt to increase the amount of home leave U.S. troops are granted between deployments. [For more on Warner’s flip-flopping, see Alan Zimmerman’s Opinionated column, “Score one for crass political calculation,” online at c-ville.com.]

Webb’s so-called “dwell time” amendment, which would require soldiers to receive the same amount of time off as they spend on active deployment, had already been voted on once, receiving 56 “ayes” in the Senate (enough to pass, but not enough to secure a veto-proof majority). Webb, and the Democratic leadership, were obviously hoping that the second time would be the charm, and the pre-vote scuttlebutt was that Webb was deep in talks with Warner to secure his fellow war vet’s important (both strategically and symbolically) support for the measure.

Well, this ain’t Hollywood, my friends, and the collision of war and politics rarely has a happy ending. And so it was that, facing stiff resistance from the Bush White House, the Senate Republican minority and—perhaps most troublesome—longtime Warner buddy John McCain, Webb’s dwell-time bill began to look less and less like a sure thing with every passing day.

The final nail in the coffin came the day before the big vote, when Senator McCain took to the senate floor to announce that a nonbinding “Sense of Congress” amendment supporting troop readiness would be introduced by none other than… Senator John Warner! (Cue cartoony “wah-waaaah” flügelhorn sound effect.)

Ironically, even this toothless gesture of support (which praised the idea of increased dwell time without actually doing anything to make it happen) went down to defeat, proving just how difficult it is to get anything done in our nation’s dysfunctional, increasingly divided congress. And the damage wasn’t just limited to our country’s war-weary troops and rapidly evaporating intra-party bonhomie—no, the toxic fallout from this particular round of political “gotcha” might also extinguish the budding partnership of our great Commonwealth’s two top Congress-critters.

Not exactly what Virginia’s buddy flick enthusiasts were hoping for, perhaps, but don’t let it bother you too much—we have it on pretty good authority that they’re planning on recasting the “Senator Warner” role for the sequel.

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