WASHINGTON – The Senate, spending the spring mired in divisive debate on Iraq, sharply rejected legislation Wednesday to cut off money for combat operations after March 2008.
The vote was a loss for Sen. Russell Feingold and other liberal Democrats who support taking the drastic step to end the war. But the effort picked up new support from members previously reluctant to limit war funding — an indication of the conflict's unpopularity among voters.
The proposal lost 29-67 on a procedural vote, falling 31 votes short of the necessary votes to advance.
"It was considered absolute heresy four months ago," Feingold, D-Wis., said of any legislative move to simply stop funding the war.
"Well, today a majority of the Democratic senators said it is time to end the mission as we have it, and to bring this mistake to an end," he later added. "That is a huge change."
The vote came as Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid planned to begin negotiating a war spending bill with the House. Unable to pass the House version of the bill — which funds the war in two-month installments — Reid staged a series of test votes Wednesday to determine how far senators are willing to go on war legislation.
"We have to make certain that (troops) do receive the funds that they need," said Reid, D-Nev. "But we need to do it in the context of changing this policy. And I think our votes today are an indication that that sentiment is growing."
In addition to rejecting Feingold's proposal, the Senate opposed a Republican proposal intended to restrict U.S. aid for Iraq if Baghdad failed to implement certain political and security reforms. The proposal was the strongest GOP challenge yet to Bush's Iraq policy, but Democratic leaders railed against it as too weak.
The 52-44 vote fell eight votes shy of the required 60 votes needed.
The Senate agreed only on a nonbinding resolution expressing the need to pass a war spending bill by Memorial Day. That proposal passed by an 87-9 vote.
Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell said the votes proved that GOP members want to signal their impatience with the Iraqi government but do not want to set timetables on the war.
"The Iraqi government, it strikes me, needs to understand that they're running out of time to get their part of the job done," said McConnell, R-Ky.
While Feingold claimed victory, his proposal, cosponsored by Reid and Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., proved divisive for Democrats. On the final vote, 19 Democrats joined 47 Republicans and Connecticut Independent Joseph Lieberman in opposing the measure. Of the 29 supporting were 28 Democrats and Vermont Independent Bernard Sanders.
Sen. Carl Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, said he opposes any measure that cuts off money for the war.
"We don't want to send the message to the troops" that Congress does not support them, said Levin, D-Mich. "We're going to support those troops."
But other Democrats said the move was necessary.
"I'm not crazy about the language in the Feingold amendment, but I am crazy about the idea that we have to keep the pressure on," said Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., who also wants the Democratic presidential nomination.
The second measure, drafted by Sen. John Warner, would have threatened billions of dollars in U.S. aid to Iraq if Baghdad failed to implement certain political and security reforms. But in a last-minute change to the proposal to gain White House acceptance, Warner added a provision allowing the president to waive the restriction.
While the legislation would have challenged Bush's Iraq policy, Democrats feared its passage would have weakened their hand when negotiating with the White House and House on a final war spending bill.
It "is really very tepid, very weak," said Reid, who supports cutting off funding for combat next year. "A cup of tea that's been sitting on the counter for a few weeks. ... You wouldn't want to drink that tea. You wouldn't want to vote for this amendment."
Warner, R-Va., defended the measure as carefully negotiated and "a good-faith effort to do my very best."
Ultimately, his proposal won support of 44 GOP members, seven Democrats and Lieberman. Opposing the legislation were Sanders, 40 Democrats and three Republicans.
The Senate plans to vote Thursday on a resolution expressing support for the troops — a procedural step needed to trigger three-way negotiations involving the House, Senate and Bush administration on a final compromise.
Negotiations on the final compromise are expected to take days.
Levin pulled from the floor his proposal to set an Oct. 1 date to begin troop withdrawals, but allow the president to waive that requirement. He had pitched the idea with the expectation that the president would accept it because of the waiver; but, Levin said Wednesday he had been advised by the White House that the president would veto the measure regardless.
Levin also said he worried that its passage would weaken the Senate's position in negotiations on the final war bill.