WASHINGTON — The GOP-controlled Senate rejected a Democratic call Tuesday for a timetable for withdrawing U.S. troops from Iraq but urged President Bush to outline his plan for “the successful completion of the mission” in a bill reflecting a growing bipartisan unease with his Iraq policies.
The overall measure, adopted 98-0, shows a willingness to defy the president in several ways despite a threatened veto. It would restrict the techniques used to interrogate terrorism suspects, ban their inhuman treatment and call for the administration to provide lawmakers with quarterly reports on the status of operations in Iraq.
Bush, traveling in Japan, said he is happy to keep Congress informed of his plan to bring democracy to Iraq.
“It is important that we succeed in Iraq ... and we’re going to,” Bush said during a press conference with Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi. “The only way that we won’t succeed is if we lose our nerve and the terrorists are able to drive us out of Iraq by killing innocent lives.”
The bill was not without victories for the president, including support for the military tribunals Bush has set up to try detainees at the prison in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. Yet even that was tempered, with language letting the inmates appeal to a federal court their designation as enemy combatants and their sentences.
The Senate’s votes on Iraq showed a willingness even by Republicans to question the White House on a war that’s growing increasingly unpopular with Americans.
Polls show Bush’s popularity has tumbled in part because of public frustration over Iraq, a war that has claimed the lives of more than 2,000 American troops.
Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., said the outcome was “a vote of no confidence on the president’s policies in Iraq.” Republicans “acknowledged that there need to be changes made,” he said.
But Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, R-Tenn., trumpeted the chamber’s rejection of the Democratic call for a withdrawal timetable.
“It is an absolute repudiation of the cut-and-run strategy put forward by the Democrats,” Frist said.
Bush also highlighted the rejection of the withdrawal amendment, calling it a “positive step.”
“The Senate did ask that we report on progress being made in Iraq, which we’re more than willing to do,” Bush said. “That’s to be expected. That’s what the Congress expects. They expect us to keep them abreast of a plan that is going to work.”
The fate of the legislation is uncertain. The House version of the bill, which sets Pentagon policy and authorizes spending, doesn’t include the Iraq language or any of the provisions on the detention, interrogation or prosecution of terrorism suspects.
The measure faces a veto threat from the administration over a provision that imposes a blanket prohibition on the use of “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of terrorism suspects in U.S. custody.
Even so, the Senate’s political statement was clear — and made even more stinging when the vote was held with Bush abroad, in Asia, an embarrassing step Congress often tries to avoid. With Democrats pressing their amendment calling for a calendar for withdrawal, Republicans worked to fend off a frontal attack by Democrats by calling on the White House to do more.
On a 58-40 vote, Senate Republicans killed the measure Democratic leaders had offered to force GOP lawmakers to take a stand on the war.
Year of transition?
The Senate then voted 79-19 in favor of a Republican alternative stating that 2006 “should be a period of significant transition to full Iraqi sovereignty,” with Iraqi forces taking the lead in providing security to create the conditions for the phased redeployment of U.S. forces.
Like the Democratic proposal, the GOP measure is purely advisory, a statement of the Senate’s thinking. It does not require the administration to do anything.
Rather, it simply calls for the Bush administration to “explain to Congress and the American people its strategy for the successful completion of the mission in Iraq” and to provide reports on U.S. foreign policy and military operations in Iraq every three months until all U.S. combat brigades have been withdrawn.
Underscoring the political stakes of Tuesday’s votes, four of the five Democrats who opposed establishing a timetable are up for re-election next fall, three of them — Sens. Ben Nelson of Nebraska, Bill Nelson of Florida and Kent Conrad of North Dakota — in states that Bush won in 2004.
Sen. Lincoln Chafee, the one Republican who voted for a timetable, faces a tough re-election race in Rhode Island, which Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry won a year ago.
The overall bill includes provisions that, taken together, mark an effort by Congress to rein in some of the wide authority lawmakers gave the president following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
In a mixed bag for the president, the Senate also voted to endorse the Bush administration’s military procedures for detaining and prosecuting foreign terrorism suspects at the U.S. naval base at Guantanamo Bay. But the provision approved on a 84-14 vote also would allow the detainees to appeal their detention status and punishments to a federal appeals court in Washington.
Replacing habeus corpus
That avenue would take the place of the one tool the Supreme Court gave detainees in 2004 to fight the legality of their detentions — the right to file habeas corpus petitions in any federal court.
Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C., acknowledged possible political reasons for the wide support of his measure. “I think it speaks to a bit of nervousness about the public perception of how the war is going with respect to 2006,” Graham said.
The bill also contains White House-opposed language limiting interrogation tactics and banning the use of cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment of foreigners in U.S. custody. The Bush administration has threatened to veto any bill that includes language about the treatment of detainees, arguing it would limit the president’s ability to prevent terrorist attacks.
Reflecting senators’ anger over recent leaks of classified information, the bill also contains provisions that would require details of purportedly secret CIA prisons overseas and strip security clearances of federal government officials who knowingly disclose national security secrets.
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