WASHINGTON – Republicans handed Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid a defeat on the Iraq issue Thursday, voting down a proposal that would withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by March 31, 2008.
Democrats aggressively challenged President Bush's Iraq policy at both ends of the Capitol building, gaining House committee approval for a troop withdrawal deadline of Sept. 1, 2008, but suffering defeat in the Senate.
The vote was 50-48 against the measure, 12 short of the 60 needed for passage.'
Anti-war Democrats prevailed on a near-party line vote of 36-28 in the House Appropriations Committee, brushing aside a week-old veto threat from the administration and overcoming unyielding opposition from Republicans.
"I want this war to end. I don't want to go to any more funerals," said New York Rep. Rep. Jose Serrano, one of several liberal Democrats who have pledged their support for the legislation despite preferring a faster end to the war.
"Nobody wants our troops out of Iraq more than I do, countered Rep. C.W. Bill Young of Florida, who sought unsuccessfully to scuttle the timeline for a troop withdrawal. "But we can't afford to turn over Iraq to Al Qaeda."
In the Senate, after weeks of skirmishing, Republicans easily turned back Democratic legislation requiring a troop withdrawal to begin within 120 days. The measure set no fixed deadline for completion of the redeployment, but set a goal of March 31, 2008. The vote was 50-48 against the measure, 12 short of the 60 needed for passage.
By coincidence, the developments coincided with the traditional St. Patrick's Day luncheon in the Capitol, an annual social event hosted by the speaker of the House and attended by the president. For an hour or so, while lawmakers were debating the war, Bush and the leader of the political opposition, Speaker Nancy Pelosi, were seated near one another in an ornate hall not far from the Capitol Rotunda.
If they discussed the war that has so far claimed the lives of more than 3,200 U.S. troops, there was no evidence of it.
The day's votes in Congress underscored the extraordinary, unpredictable wartime clash between commander in chief and lawmakers.
In the House, only one committee Democrat, liberal Rep. Barbara Lee of California, voted against her party's plan, saying it did not go far enough. "I believe the American people sent a mandate to us to bring home our men and women before the end of the year," she said.
Overall, the committee vote strongly suggested that Democrats will be able to push their troop withdrawal timetable through the full House next week. Even so, there is little if any prospect the Senate will agree to anything remotely similar. And even if it does, Bush's threatened veto that would force Pelosi and other war critics back to the drafting table.
It took weeks for the Senate to agree to hold a formal debate on Democratic calls for a change in war policy, and by the time it occurred, the result was utterly predictable. So much so that Sen. John McCain, the Arizona Republican who is running for the White House in 2008, skipped the vote to campaign in Iowa.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky led the opposition to the measure.
"This is a dangerous piece of legislation. It is constitutionally dubious and it would authorize a scattered band of United States senators to tie the hand" of the commander in chief, he said.
McConnell said it would be "absolutely fatal" to the mission of U.S. troops in Iraq.
Reid of Nevada disputed that. "Five years of war, the president's current approach in Iraq is not working. The country is closer to chaos than stability. U.S. troops are policing a civil war, not hunting and killing the terrorists who attacked America on 9/11."
While the Democratic defeat was pre-ordained, New York Sen. Charles Schumer of New York, who heads his party's campaign committee, suggested a political motive for the decision to go ahead with the vote.
Republicans, he said, "are caught ... between the president who sticks to this policy and their constituencies, who know this policy is wrong."
Sen. Gordon Smith of Oregon was the only Republican to support the measure. Democrats Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska opposed it, as did Sen. Joseph Lieberman of Connecticut, an independent Democrat.
For their part, Republicans sought to create a political dilemma for Democrats, countering with an alternative measure that said "no funds should be cut off or reduced for American troops in the field" that would undermine their safety.
GOP leaders hoped the proposal, advanced by Sen. Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, would prove difficult for Democrats to oppose and complicate any future effort to reduce funds for the war.
Gregg's amendment passed 82-16.
Democrats tried still another proposal, this one saying that Congress would provide "necessary funds for training equipment and other support for troops in the field." It passed easily, 96-2.
The House timetable was part of a spending bill that totals $124 billion, $95.5 billion of which is targeted for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Initially, Democrats had wanted to use the funding bill to prevent Bush from proceeding with his plans to increase troop strength by 21,000 as part of an effort to quell sectarian violence in the Baghdad area. That was scuttled after Republicans criticized it and moderate Democrats objected.
In its place was a requirement for troops to receive proper training, equipment and rest, although Bush is permitted to waive those provisions.
The balance of the funds in the House measure would be distributed among domestic programs that Democrats wanted to highlight -- health care for veterans and low-income children, aid to agriculture and more.
Republicans said that was a thinly disguised attempt to win support from reluctant Democrats. "Attention Kmart shoppers. ... Whether you be a spinach farmer or a salmon fisher ... there's something in there for you," taunted Rep. Hal Rogers, R-Ky.
Rep. David Obey, D-Wis., chairman of the committee, defended the billions of dollars for agricultural assistance, contending that many farmers are in difficult financial circumstances because of conditions beyond their control.
Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, a Democratic presidential candidate, said in a New York Times interview that if elected she would maintain a scaled-down American military force in Iraq that would stay off the streets in Baghdad and no longer would try to protect Iraqis from sectarian violence.
She cited "remaining vital national security interests" for a continued deployment of U.S. troops in Iraq aimed at fighting Al Qaeda, deterring Iran, protecting Kurds and possibly supporting the Iraqi military, the newspaper reported Wednesday night on its Web site.
She said her plan was consistent with the Senate resolution, saying it called for "a limited number" of troops to stay in Iraq to protect the U.S. Embassy and other personnel, train and equip Iraqi forces and conduct "targeted counterterrorism operations."
While the House bill is unlikely to sail through unchecked, Democrats say its passage — even if by a slim majority — would be a loud message to the president to end the war. Pelosi was trying to line up votes from party liberals who want troops out of Iraq sooner than the 2008 deadline, as well as more conservative Democrats who are concerned the bill would micromanage the war.
A total of 10 peaceful anti-war protesters were arrested, both inside the committee room and outside the building where the debate was unfolding.
Sgt. Kimberly Schneider of the Capitol Police said they would be charged with unlawful assembly and disorderly conduct. "They were being loud and boisterous. They were told to stop and they didn't so they were arrested," she said.